Their numbers were small, but the conversation fascinating, especially with the esteemed retired barrister Ramon Alberga QC offering his perspectives to the “Tort Warriors” gathering at Grand Old House for lunch on Oct. 15.
No one remaining from the original group of litigation lawyers can remember exactly when the Tort Warriors first gathered – it was in the mid-to-late ‘90s – but they remember the reason why they first met.
“It was Pierre Lamontagne’s birthday party,” said Higgs & Johnson Partner Philip Boni, who now organizes Tort Warriors events.
Lamontagne was a Queen’s Counsel barrister from Montreal who was often instructed by Cayman law firms to represent clients in court. He died at the age of 66 in December 2001, after a battle with cancer.
The surprise birthday party took place at Dominique’s Restaurant on Fort Street, where Lamontagne often ate because he loved the coconut cream pie served there. As a birthday present, one of the attendees, attorney Peter Broadhurst, gave Lamontagne a gray T-shirt with the words “Tort Warrior” emblazoned across the front in big red letters.
Around 2008, in memory of Lamontagne, a group of litigation attorneys in Cayman started meeting periodically to catch up with each other in a social setting, talk about the profession and tell, as Boni puts it, “war stories.” They called themselves “The Tort Warriors.”
During his time in Cayman, Lamontagne earned the admiration of his peers.
“We were all great fans of Pierre,” Boni said. “He was quite a character. He was one of those QCs who had an open door. I think he was appreciated by a lot of the young lawyers for his unique skill set.”
Boni said Lamontagne had the disturbing habit of falling asleep in the middle of a trial.
“I remember asking him about it,” said Boni, adding that when he is in court, he finds it important to be alert and hear everything opposing counsel says.
“He said, ‘Well, Philip, I know what they’re going to say. Do I really need to be awake to hear that?’”
Broadhurst fondly remembered Lamontagne, who he said could be quite stubborn at times.
“But he was an absolute jurist; he loved the law.”
Alberga said he would have liked to hear what Lamontagne, whom he battled in court on more than one occasion, would have thought about the recent trial of MLA McKeeva Bush.
“I’m sorry Pierre was not at the trial. It would have been interesting to hear what he would have said about the governor,” he said, referring to the string of emails written by former governor Duncan Taylor in the lead-up to Bush’s arrest and charging. Those emails ended up being crucial evidence in the case.
Known as the Father of the Cayman Islands Bar, the elder Alberga (his son Michael is also a prominent Cayman Islands attorney) had a career in Cayman that spanned six decades until his retirement from practice in 2009.
“I came here and did my first case in 1964,” he said.
At the time, Alberga had a practice in Jamaica, which he started in 1952, and came over to handle courtroom cases in Cayman when instructed to do so.
In his days practicing in Jamaica, Alberga advocated for a number of people charged with capital offenses.
“My first big case was a murder trial,” he said. “That was my first case – defending a person who could be put to death.”
Alberga said he was involved in defending 12 murder charges in all.
“I only saw the black cap once,” he said, referring to the ritual practice in years past of Jamaican judges donning a black cap while reading a sentence of death. “I was able to get manslaughter or acquittal 11 times.”
The case he was involved with where the sentence was death was that of former West Indies test cricketer Leslie Hylton, who was charged with murdering his wife in 1954,
“He used a six-shooter to shoot his wife eight times, which meant he reloaded,” Alberga said. “So he hanged.”
Over his career, Alberga crossed paths with the “Who’s Who” of Caribbean lawyers and judges, and even played an important role in the career of William S. Walker, who in turn was instrumental in helping to create and establish the Cayman Islands as an offshore financial center. After the two met at Cambridge during their formal education, Walker went to Canada and eventually reached out to Alberga in the early 1960s to see if he could join his chambers in Jamaica, which he did. When Jamaica went independent in 1962, Walker told Alberga he was going to check out Cayman.
“I told him, ‘It’s a sand dune’ and he probably wouldn’t like it,’” Alberga said. “He went and came back and said, ‘I like what I saw and I’m going to leave you and set up a practice on Grand Cayman at the end of the year.’”
Just a couple of years later, Walker called Alberga and returned the favor.
“It was [Walker] who brought me here,” Alberga said. “He instructed me on my first case here.”
Eventually, Alberga learned to love Cayman and moved here permanently in 1976. Now nearing the age of 87, he laughs at his sight-unseen first impression of the Cayman Islands and is happy to have been proven wrong.
Boni asked Alberga, if he had it all to do over, would he go the route of becoming a barrister, essentially on his own, rather than a solicitor as part of a firm.
“My father told me, and I think he was very wise, that I didn’t have the temperament to be a solicitor,” he said, adding that his father was a solicitor himself. “I think I would be a barrister again. I don’t think I’d like to be a partner in a firm.”