By Megan James
Gilbert Kerlin’s brilliance shined like the sun. His colleagues knew him as a peerless lawyer and his neighbors new him as a generous contributor to community causes and a fierce protector of Riverdale’s open spaces. Yet, when he died four years ago, at the age of 94, his reputation was under a cloud.
Now that cloud has been lifted.
A lawsuit filed in Texas nine years before his death had accused Mr. Kerlin of bilking residents of Padre Island for six decades. His family learned late last month that, at long last, the Texas Supreme Court had ruled in Mr. Kerlin’s favor.
The court resoundingly reversed a 2000 victory, awarded by a Brownsville, Texas jury, for the heirs of the original settler of Padre Island, who claimed Mr. Kerlin had defrauded them of oil and gas royalties for 60 years.
Earlier descendents of Padre Nicolas Balli — predecessors of the plaintiffs — had sold off their land long before Mr. Kerlin ever set foot on the Texas island, the court decided, and furthermore, the heirs had waited too long to try to recover royalties.
When it finally came, the news was bittersweet. Mr. Kerlin didn’t live to see his reputation restored. “This case clouded the end of his life,” said his daughter, Sarah Gund. “It was a horrible way to end a brilliant legal career.”
Members of the Balli family first filed their suit in 1993. In 2000, when Mr. Kerlin was 90, a jury awarded the more than 275 family members $1.1 million in lost oil royalties, in addition to $1.5 million in attorney’s fees.
Neither party was satisfied. The Balli family wanted more money and Mr. Kerlin wanted the verdict overturned. Many people advised Mr. Kerlin to settle, his daughter said, but he fought it to the end.
“I just wish that he knew the court decided that he was innocent,” she said.
It was 1937 when Mr. Kerlin, a young lawyer straight out of Harvard, first traveled to Brownsville at the request of his uncle, who suspected he might find oil beneath the Padre Island land. Mr. Kerlin was instructed to locate the Balli heirs and purchase their interests in the island, which he did.
Decades later the family alleged that when Mr. Kerlin bought the land he had assured the heirs they would receive some compensation if he profited off the land’s resources, and they argued he could owe them as much as $11 million in mineral revenues.
But the Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the Balli’s claim was dead on arrival.
“It never should have gone to the jury in the first place,” said Horatio Barrera, Mr. Kerlin’s lawyer, “because the issues had long since become stale and the witnesses were all gone, all dead.”
Even if the case hadn’t expired within the statute of limitations — the longest in Texas is four years — the jury concluded that Mr. Kerlin never did anything wrong in the first place. The Balli family wasn’t missing out on royalties reaped from their land, because it wasn’t the Balli family’s land when Mr. Kerlin bought it.
“Juan Jose Balli [Padre Nicolas Balli’s nephew] sold his interests in Padre Island to Santiago Morales in 1830,” Justice Scott Brister wrote for the court. “Balli’s heirs have never lived on Padre Island, never worked it, never paid taxes on it.”
The Balli family had argued that the agreement between Jaun Jose Balli and Mr. Morales had been rescinded, but the court found that it hadn’t.
“If there’s any message from this — it took eight years after the case was tried and 15 years after it was filed, to finally come out with the fact that it should have never been tried in the first place,” Mr. Berrera said.
“It just goes to show you that the wheels of the judicial system sometimes turn very slowly.”
Mr. Berrera, as well as Mr. Kerlin’s family, are relieved that, at long last, the case has come to a close. They only wish Mr. Kerlin was alive to see it.
“More than anything else, I think that it was important for Gil to finally establish that he didn’t take anything from anybody,” Mr. Berrera said. “He had nothing to take.”