On March 18, 2017, we lost attorney E. Lawrence “Barney” Oldfield. His real-life legal career was straight out of the TV show “Westworld” — he practiced cattle-rustling law.
Representing the Hartford Insurance Co., Larry defended unproved claims of rustling and also went after the bad guys who stole cattle after Hartford paid the ranchers. In the process, he made law in 26 states, 19 federal jurisdictions and even in the U.S. Supreme Court. He was a regular speaker for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
And he was always the center of attention. He was also a concert pianist whose favorite song, of course, was “My Way.” He taught us all to relish life. I interviewed him in the hospital.
One of his first cases was a claim for a bull that could not produce offspring.
“It was supposedly worth a quarter of a million dollars. We were able to successfully plead the bull couldn’t perform natural service. Number two, the motility of its sperm was below 10 percent so, it couldn’t conceive and so forth. They were seeking a large sum of money. The appellate court of Florida said it was worth hamburger meat, 800 and some bucks.
“First trial, which occurred was in … let me think … it was in Alabama. I flew into Huntsville with my claims manager. I think we went to Muscle Shoals from Huntsville. Our local counsel took us on a great meal one day down by the river with cornbread, catfish, hush puppies, all the works. It was great. We were being sued by the insured. As I recall, there was a truck that was allegedly hijacked with range cattle but nobody could prove why, when or where. There was an exclusion in the policy which, of course, the insured didn’t like and so we were sued.
“Our local counsel said, ‘Don’t sweat this.’ He said, ‘Over a hundred years, no insurance company has won a case in the trial court in this county.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll try.’ After a week’s jury trial we lost.
“So we took Southern Airways there and went to Huntsville, got on an earlier flight, and we found out a day or so later that the flight we were supposed to be on crashed with all lives lost in Atlanta, which was a scary thought. That plane went down. The good Lord saw fit to save my life once more.
“There were a couple notable cases during my time. I’ll mention one of them. This involved the stealing of 97 head of cattle. Previously they had a claim for three cattle and turned it down because there was unexplainable disappearance of inventory, all the usual exclusions under the policy. So as soon as we denied the three-cow one, we get another one for 97 head. The guy that owned them was believed to be working for one of the biker gangs, was in Iowa in a place called Sac City, Iowa, if you can believe that. It’s the armpit of the world. Me and my local counsel, Jim Van Dyke, went down there for a week. The motel that we stayed at was like the ones they showed in 1950s movies. One bed. This particular bed, springs sprung in it. As I recall, I don’t think I could lock the door, I put a chair under it.
“Anyway, we started the case and what we thought was a winner was the fact that the local sheriff’s office had done a marijuana flyover three days before the claimed loss and the cows weren’t there, so we know that this was very suspicious. In fact, we were able to get pictures wall-to-ceiling high from out of the plane flying over, showing no cattle, at least none that could be seen. At the conclusion … my good friend and investigator Mac MacDonald was my expert witness. He had grown up out West, very familiar with cattle and the fact was there were no tire tracks. I think somebody had freshly cut a chain. That was all the evidence there was on the other side.
“So we got to the last day and the opposing counsel … he gave a closing, I gave a closing and then he got up for his final, and I must have gotten to him a little bit, he said, ‘let me say one more thing.’ In Iowa, they had eight jurors, not 12. After so many hours you can use seven, so it’s a little bit easier to get a conviction for liability.
“So he gets up with a head full of steam. … He says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury’, he said, ‘Mr. Oldfield is from Chicago. He ain’t no Michael Jordan. Don’t listen to him. His case is not over until the fat lady sings.’”
The problem with that approach: One juror was a larger woman.
“Now, this lady turns three beats of red in the back. He ended up losing.
“We polled the jury. ‘Wasn’t it those great big pictures on the wall, picture after picture after picture showing they weren’t there?’ And the foreman said, ‘No, that’s not why we did that.’ See you never know what a jury’s going to think or do. ‘That’s not what we’re going to do,’ he said, ‘There was no manure in the causeways in between the fences that we could see. That’s what tipped us off with no manure.’
“The judge, I forget his name, chief judge, he said, ‘Wow’, he said, ‘This is the first no-s*** case I’ve ever seen.’”
Larry was at the same hotel when Oprah Winfrey was sued by Cactus Feeders for comments she had made that were allegedly defamatory about beef.
“The first evening after the case started, the husband of the jury foreman came on the air and said, ‘Oh my wife loves Oprah. She watches her every day.’ I said, ‘This battle is done.’ Sure enough, it was.”
The son of two strict ministers, Larry was happily studying beat poetry at Long Island University. He had skipped two grades and was younger. One day, his folks realized he was reading books with four-letter words and sent him here to Wheaton College.
He didn’t fit in very well at Wheaton, got accepted to Julliard for piano, actually played once at Carnegie Hall, but ended up at DePaul law school after working in Alton as an investigator. He drove a cab at nights to pay for law school.
Before law school, he ran all around Europe and the Middle East until he ran out of money in Munich. After staying up all night singing “Waltzing Matilda” with a rowdy band of Australians at Oktoberfest, he joined the army “to get home.”
He ended up loving his service and made fast friends with his buddies. They called him “Barney” after a well-known racecar driver.
For one of his famous reunions he had tanks put on the front lawn of his house in DuPage County.
He left an absolutely wonderful family. An amazing lawyer, an amazing life.
We so often think we have such very limited work and life choices, not realizing how much else is out there. Larry showed us.