Snuggled in the hill country just northwest of Birmingham, Jasper is a city of contrasts. The center of an economy based on coal mining, it’s a world very different from Jefferson County’s big city feel. Here generations of coal miners have toiled both above and below ground to extract the black rock that has fueled American industry for more than a century.
But Jasper boasts more millionaires than most cities of 22,000. Until his recent death, Garry Neal Drummond, founder and president of Drummond Coal and at one time Alabama’s wealthiest person with a net worth of just under $1 billion, called Jasper home. Walk the downtown streets and you see coffee bars, upscale restaurants, fashionable shops, and the offices of most of Jasper’s more than 100 attorneys.
Jasper’s lawyers reflect this no-nonsense, hardworking background. No firm reflects this better than Nelson, Bryan & Cross, whose three partners, Pat Nelson, Bob Bryan, and Gina Cross, have found success from a hard work ethic and traditional values based on humble backgrounds.
CHAMPIONS IN COAL MINING LITIGATION
The three partners bring solid north Alabama credentials. Nelson and Cross are Jasper natives; Bob Bryan hails from Hartselle. Bryan handles personal injury, workers compensation, insurance disputes, and wrongful death cases. Nelson handles the Social Security side, while Gina Cross’ specialty is Black Lung cases, common in coal-rich Walker County. Bryan is especially proud of the firm’s black lung case record. “We win about four in ten black lung cases – way above the national average.”
But it wasn’t always that way, Bryan explains. Prior to a change in the black lung law in 2009, it was difficult to prove coal dust as the cause of black lung. The burden of proof was always on the miner, and his breathing problems could be attributed to smoking, breathing methane gas in the mines, or other causes. “The new ruling changed everything,” says Bryan. “Now if a miner with a serious breathing impairment has had at least 15 years of underground exposure to coal dust, it is presumed that dust is the cause.”
An old song from the 1930s describes coal mining: “Where the danger is double, and the pleasures are few.” Black lung is just one threat to a miner’s health. “Over the past 23 years, I have handled dozens of fatal or catastrophic claims from coal mining accidents,” says Bryan. “There’s lots of ways to get hurt: you can fall, slip on wet rock, or have something fall on you. Miners have been injured or killed by underground machinery. Don’t get me wrong, the mines are much safer than they were even 20 years ago. But it’s still a dangerous job.”
Mine explosions are a miner’s nightmare. A major explosion at the local Jim Walters # 5 mine in 2001 killed 13 miners, and severely injured many others. “That explosion happened in September 2001, the same month as the terrorist attacks, so got almost buried in the national news,” says Bryan. “My former partner Jimmy King and I represented nine of those killed. There were about 25 defendants represented by dozens of lawyers on the other side from just about every major law firm in Birmingham.”
In the end, says Bryan, every one of the cases resolved in what was probably the most complex product liability case in Alabama legal history.
READY TO GO TO TRIAL
Nelson Bryan & Cross nurtures a reputation for being willing to go to the mat for clients. “If a client has a case that can be resolved without trial, we will strive to do this. But if it can’t be settled for a fair amount, we are prepared to go to trial.” Bryan feels this often brings justice much sooner. “Once a case is filed in court it normally takes up to two years before it can be tried, but we often can resolve a case in six to nine months.”
Pat Nelson, at 73 the patriarch of the firm, knows Jasper well. It’s his home town — he attended Jasper schools and played high school sports on Jasper teams. His father, co-owner of a local tire store, put his son to work changing tires in the afternoons and weekends during high school.
Nelson displayed an early love of politics. “When I was going to school they’d let you watch major events on TV, things like the World Series and political conventions. I watched John F. Kennedy at the 1956 Democratic convention running for vice president, when he lost to Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. But I was drawn into his spell and a love of politics in general.”
A desire to pursue law started early. When Nelson was just a boy his older sister married a young lawyer, Joel Robinson. He was also influenced heavily by the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. The hook for a legal career had been set.
Following graduation from the University of Alabama in 1968, he went to work as an accountant for U.S. Pipe in Birmingham while attending Cumberland School of Law. “I was in the last class at Cumberland to offer law classes at night,” Nelson remembers. “Not having night classes made it harder for many attorneys who followed years later.”
After passing the bar in late 1973, he went to work for Bill Wilder and Charlie Crowder, two colorful attorneys in downtown Birmingham. But it was anything but a smooth ride for the young attorney. “Crowder left about two weeks after I started, and all of his files got dumped in my lap.” Nelson grins as he relates the story. “I felt deluged, but I worked hard – nobody worked harder than me.”
After five years Nelson and his wife decided to return to Walker County. “I got offered a job at my brother-in-law’s firm, O’Rear and Robinson. Joel had already been practicing for 23 years when I arrived there. So I was really the junior partner.” A few years later Nelson and his brother-in-law set up their own practice: Robinson & Nelson.
He developed a passion for Social Security disability cases. “I always liked it when someone disabled could get a monthly check and not have to worry about finances,” he says. Walking to the back wall of his office, he takes down a framed letter from a woman he helped many years ago, a heartfelt letter of thanks. “That letter gives real meaning to what I do.”
That passion prompted him to become a charter member of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants (NOSSCR), a group that lobbies on behalf of Social Security claimants nationwide. “We needed an organization to look out for Social Security claimants, and we’ve been able to get a lot of changes made in Washington on their behalf.”
Asked about a case that really stands out, Nelson settles back in his chair and stairs at the ceiling for a moment. “I remember this Social Security case, Handley v. Schweiker, where a 2-year-old illegitimate child was denied access to Social Security benefits after his father died. You see, the law had always been that illegitimate children in Alabama were not eligible for these benefits.” Nelson took up the child’s cause, which ultimately led to a change in the state statute by the State of Alabama legislature.
His 40-year reputation led to being named a two-term bar commissioner for the 14th Judicial Circuit. Past president of the Walker County Bar Association, Nelson has been a board member or office holder of many other Walker County professional, civic and charitable organizations. He presently serves as chairman of the Photography section of the Walker Area Community Foundation
Always active, until recently he pursued road biking and running as hobbies. He looks back fondly to a 2005 visit to the Tour de France bicycle race, where he and his wife had the opportunity to ahead of the group of cyclists as the race began. An avid wildlife photographer, he has traveled across the United States, Alaska, and elsewhere in search of just the right photo opportunities of wildlife and landscapes.
Now in his early 70s, Pat Nelson admits he is slowing down, but still works most of the week. His reputation in Jasper as the go-to Social Security attorney is intact, with more than 6,000 disability claims plus numerous workers’ compensation and long-term disability claims to his credit.
Bob Bryan grew up in Hartselle, south of Decatur. Like Nelson, he also nurtured a passion for politics. Shortly after completing his undergraduate education at the University of Alabama, he took a position as Campaign Finance Director for Richard Shelby’s 1990 campaign for U.S. Senator from Alabama. “We crisscrossed the state and it was a great experience. I hadn’t even been to law school at that time, but the experience and contacts were tremendous,” Bryan says. “I was able to meet leading attorneys from across the state such as Eason Balch, Boots Gale, J. Mason Davis and many others.”
Law school connections led him to Walker County. In his second summer of law school at the University of Alabama he worked as research assistant to Dean Charles Gamble, author of “McElroy’s Alabama Evidence.” Gamble recommended him to a lawyer friend of his in Jasper, Jimmy King. He eventually made partner at the former firm of King, Bryan and Wiley.
In Jasper’s tight-knit legal community he soon met Pat Nelson. Before long they were working together on cases, they socialized, and soon a natural bond was formed. A close friendship formed that led ultimately to a common law practice.
In 2007 the two became aware that a picturesque stone office building just east of downtown was on the market for sale. They bought the building, with Nelson occupying the ground floor and Bryan upstairs. From that point, the decision to merge into one firm happened naturally. “It just seemed like the thing to do,” says Bryan looking back. “We could work together more closely as partners in a firm.”
Among several major cases the two have litigated are a recent medical malpractice in which the parents of a 90-day old infant brought their son to Walker Medical Center with symptoms consistent with meningitis. “They brought him to the hospital several times, but the hospital never tested him for meningitis.” Bryan says. Teaming with Birmingham attorney Dennis Goldasitch, they represented the parents in a lawsuit against the hospital. The trial lasted nearly six weeks, the longest in Walker County history.
In the end, a jury awarded the parents $10 million in damages. The hospital appealed and the case ended up at the Alabama Supreme Court, which has remanded it back to Walker County for a new trial.
Gina Cross had been a fixture of the Jasper legal community for years. She and Bob Bryan go back to 1985 when they were both in high school and were Key Club state directors. Later they worked together at the same Jasper law firm.
“I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. Graduating from Birmingham Southern College in 1989, she went straight to law school at the University of Alabama, where she graduated and passed the bar in 1992.
Not one to seek publicity, Cross describes herself as “a behind the scenes, pretty private sort of person.” “Bob Bryan and I were on the Key Club state board in high school. We became friends and stayed in touch, and eventually worked together at Wilson & King in Jasper.” The birth of her first daughter prompted her to become a full-time mom, which resulted in a 16-year leave of absence from law practice.
But life has a way of happening. After her husband died late in 2013, Cross decided it was time to return to her law practice, which she did early the following year.
“It was about that time that we began to feel the full effect of the changes to the federal Black Lung laws that took place in 2009,” she says.” Our Black Lung practice started taking off, with me as the Black Lung specialist.”
Asked to name a case that stands out, Cross says they all are special to her. “What I enjoy most is the opportunity to form relationships with our clients. These cases can take several years, which gives us the opportunity to get to know these clients personally. It’s so wonderful when we are able to get a favorable judgment. They are always so appreciative, especially knowing their spouses will be taken care of.”
Now with her youngest son off to college, Cross has more time to give back to the community she loves. And she lives life each day with this philosophy: “A good life is when you assume nothing, do more, need less, smile often, dream big, laugh a lot, and realize how blessed you are.”