On the Rise 2015: Lee M. Gillis, Jr.
September 16, 2015
Macon attorney Lee M. Gillis, Jr. was very early in his career when he worked on a case that made international news.
Gillis, now 35, was one of a team of lawyers representing the Georgia Farm Bureau in litigation stemming from the 2002 discovery that for years, the Tri-State Crematory in Walker County had discarded bodies on its property rather than cremating them.
Gillis, then a young lawyer at Macon's James Bates Brannan Groover, defended Georgia Farm Bureau Insurance from claims by relatives of the uncremated dead.
The Farm Bureau had insured the residence and crematory from any liability associated with crematory operations. State authorities recovered 337 bodies from the crematory site.
The family that owned the crematory agreed in a settlement to waive any claims to any insurance payouts by the Farm Bureau. Gillis says the Farm Bureau eventually settled with 1,600 claimants, but its own insurer then denied the Farm Bureau's claim seeking reimbursement of the settlement costs. Working with firm partner and mentor Duke Groover, Gills says, they eventually secured a recovery from the Farm Bureau's insurance carrier.
"It was my first entrance into a very complex business case," he says. "That's probably the largest case I will ever work on," he said. "It was one of the first. … It dominated my life for four years."
The work propelled Gillis into insurance defense litigation. He soon created a successful niche for himself, heading the firm's statewide uninsured motorist litigation practice, largely on behalf of carriers of uninsured motorist insurance.
"It is an unusual area of insurance law," Gillis says. "It almost impacts every personal injury defense case now. It's an unusual animal with its own body of law. Almost everyone now carries uninsured motorist coverage."
On Jan. 1, Gillis became the youngest lawyer to be admitted as a partner in the firm's history. "At a time when many lawyers are learning the ropes, Lee was busy developing a statewide reputation as a formidable advocate," says Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Dillard, a former partner whom Gillis acknowledges as another one of his mentors.
Dillard was first chair at Gillis' first trial—a case over a disputed business partnership. Dillard recalls that he asked Gillis to assist him "because he had already shown great promise as an associate."
Gillis says that Dillard "really taught me a lot. … Out of the gate he was kind enough to give me the expert accountant on cross . … I didn't have an accounting background. I had to get up to speed, and learn on the fly."
Adds Gillis: "We won."
Two years ago, Gillis joined Groover—with whom he partners 90 percent of the time—in representing a member of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections. The county Democratic Party had attempted to oust Steve Allen, one of two Democratic appointees on the five-member board, claiming he had not been properly appointed. Groover had argued that the Democrats sought to remove Allen because he voted to hold a nonpartisan election for mayor and county commissioners of a new consolidated Macon-Bibb County government in September 2013 rather than on Election Day in November. County Democratic Party officials objected to the September timing.
"We were able to show that he was duly appointed by the Democratic Party," Gillis says. "Once he was duly appointed, his term had to expire unless he was to be removed for cause. And disagreeing with him about a vote he made was not cause."
Visiting Superior Court Judge Rucker Smith, who heard the case, ruled in their client's favor.
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