William Weitzel, Texaco lawyer in fight over Getty, dies at 78

NEW YORK — William C. Weitzel Jr., the Texaco Inc. general counsel who battled Pennzoil Co.’s record $10.5 billion court judgment over the purchase of Getty Oil Co. in the 1980s and then fought off Carl Icahn, has died. He was 78.

He died on Jan. 20 after a 10-year struggle with colon cancer, his wife of 35 years, Loretta, said Thursday by phone. They lived in Cornish, N.H.

In the biggest US corporate legal case at the time, Mr. Weitzel defended Texaco’s 1984 deal to buy Getty for $10.1 billion after Houston-based Pennzoil, formed from a company cofounded by George H.W. Bush, claimed it had a previous agreement to buy Los Angeles-based Getty, according to the New York Times. Getty was run by Gordon Getty, the fourth son of its founder, J. Paul Getty, often described as the richest person before his death in 1976.

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Pennzoil, valued at about $1.5 billion before the dispute, filed a lawsuit seeking $15 billion in damages from White Plains, N.Y.-based Texaco, then the third-largest US oil company. A jury in Houston found in favor of Pennzoil in 1985.

‘‘We feel very confident that this is just an outrageous travesty and that there is no way it can withstand judicial review,’’ Mr. Weitzel said of the verdict, according to ‘‘Oil & Honor,’’ Thomas Petzinger Jr.’s 1987 book on the battle. Mr. Weitzel vowed to appeal through the Texas courts and to the US Supreme Court if necessary. ‘‘We don’t expect to have to follow that chain,’’ he said.

After the judgment, Texaco sought bankruptcy protection.

The two companies settled for $3 billion in 1987 with the help of corporate raider Icahn, who had acquired a 12.3 percent stake in Texaco, making him the largest shareholder.

In 1989, Icahn abandoned his own takeover bid for Texaco, selling his 42 million shares, valued at about $2 billion, in what was then the biggest sale on the New York Stock Exchange in dollar terms.

‘‘It was a really long and challenging situation, and he felt that he got through it and the company got through it,’’ Mr. Weitzel’s son, Richard S., said Thursday of his father in a phone interview. ‘‘It was an important part of his life.’’

In 1990, Mr. Weitzel retired after 23 years at Texaco, leaving to become a partner at the law firm Cummings & Lockwood in Stamford, Conn.

‘‘I love the company, but I want to try to climb some new mountains,’’ he said on his retirement announcement.

William Conrad Weitzel Jr. was born in Washington. He graduated from Harvard College in 1956 and from Harvard Law School in 1959.