Trial Briefs

NCAJ Hero Profile: Jay Trehy

March 13, 2023   |   Amber Nimocks

The next time you see Jay Trehy, tell him how much you appreciate him. If there’s a bar nearby, you might even buy him a drink.

It’s not just that Trehy is a faithful NCAJ member, a convivial and wise presence on the section listservs and a swell lead singer for NCAJ-favorite party band Harmless Error. Trehy deserves an extra dose of your gratitude because, over the past two years, he has logged countless hours of pro bono work on litigation that could safeguard the civil rights of every health insurance client in North Carolina.

In late 2021, NCAJ moved to intervene on a case at the trial level for the first time in the organization’s history. Alongside three Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) North Carolina policyholders, NCAJ is fighting to keep the healthcare behemoth from adding a right of reimbursement into all individual and group health policies in North Carolina. Executing the case has involved hours of depositions, filings and hearings before an administrative law judge who is considering BCBS’s petition to change the rules regarding subrogation.

Jerome P. Trehy Jr.
Trehy Safety Law
NCAJ member since 1983

Trehy said he hasn’t kept track of the time. Working on the case against corporate giant BCBS is a chance to fight as the underdog, a role he embraces with passion.

“No question, I’ve enjoyed it,” Trehy said. “I enjoy tilting at windmills. I enjoy being David versus Goliath.”

NCAJ member Doug Maynard has devoted innumerable pro bono hours to the BCBS case as well, representing NCAJ. Trehy joined the effort when it became clear that NCAJ was not going to be allowed to intervene but to file an amicus brief in support of the three BCBS policyholders. Trehy represents the policyholders.

“They needed a litigator who knew this stuff, and the obvious choice was me — because I’d written about it for so long. I know this stuff. I’m not bragging. It’s an unfortunate fact.”

Trehy’s involvement in cases involving ERISA (the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act) laid the foundation for his expertise. He had been presenting CLEs on what he calls “the ERISA menace” for a while when Lawyers Mutual hired him to conduct a nationwide survey of ERISA reimbursement law and advise it in a white paper.

“There’s an old saying: Be careful what you’re good at; you’ll be doing it the rest of your life,” Trehy said. “I became a wonk on it not because I wanted to, but because I was capable of doing it and I was given the opportunity.”

After NCAJ became involved in the BCBS litigation, Valerie Johnson, then NCAJ President-elect, sought Trehy’s help. He thought he would have to sit through a deposition or two.
The litigation continues to unfold. Regardless of the outcome, Trehy knows it’s just a big battle in an ongoing war to safeguard clients’ rights against corporate interests.

An Era of Fearlessness

The fight against BCBS nurtures an instinct born early in Trehy’s career when he worked in the office of the Public Defender in Fayetteville in the mid-1980s, an experience he describes as extraordinary.

“It was filled with talented and grossly underpaid litigators — brilliant people who were doing it because it was the right thing to do and not because they were being paid enough, that’s for sure.”

Lead Public Defender Mary Ann Tally, an eventual NCAJ president, NCAJ staff lobbyist and Superior Court judge, set the tone for the office. Trehy’s colleagues included legendary lawyers like John Britt, Steve Friedman, Staples Hughes, Mike O’Foghludha, now a Superior Court judge, and Greg Weeks, who also became a Superior Court judge.

“We were fearless,” Trehy said. “We would stand up to any judge over any motion over any principal. … It was just a time when it was us against the DAs, the police, the judges — who were all former DAs back then.”

When it came time to start a family and public defender wages no longer sufficed, Trehy began to consider private sector offers and wound up working for one NCAJ founder and two presidents. He first went to work for NCAJ founder Charlie Blanchard.

“I learned a tremendous amount from Charlie,” Trehy said. “Charlie was a true innovator. Charlie brought to North Carolina things like using an economist, using an accident reconstruction expert. He was the first to do those things. He taught me how to be creative and how to develop a case in a creative manner.”

After working for Blanchard, Trehy worked for Doug Abrams, also a former NCAJ president. He learned a lot from Abrams, he said, but one lesson stands out above the rest.

“You can never forget that while you’re handling multiple claims and files, there’s a person there. This is their only case, and you are their only hope,” Trehy said. “That’s a moral responsibility that you don’t assume lightly. If you’re going to take on that responsibility, then you owe it to that human being to give it your best. There can be no slacking because this is a person who is counting on you.”

Trehy then worked for Howard Twiggs, also a past president of NCAJ, from whom he learned much about integrity. “He was always trying to do the right thing, no matter who said what,” Trehy said.

Building Relationships

Now Trehy works from home in Bahama, in rural Durham County, where he lives with his wife, René Trehy, a mediator and arbitrator. They have three adult children: J.P. Trehy, Nolan Trehy and Emily Ellis. These days Jay works mostly in collaboration with other lawyers.

Plenty of Trehy’s cases have grabbed headlines over the years, including the $25 million wrongful-death judgement against Durham novelist Michael Peterson that Trehy secured for Caitlin Atwater Clark, Kathleen Peterson’s daughter. But other, less-celebrated cases stand out for Trehy.

In a case in Smithfield where again the defense offered nothing, Trehy had the defense’s accident reconstruction expert’s opinion excluded by showing that he didn’t use proper methodology. He then used the expert’s facts about distance, time and speed to prove his client’s claim. “That was particularly fun because I got to use the accident reconstruction against the defense,” he said.

In the case of a client struck by a police car while drunkenly crossing a busy downtown Wilmington street, Trehy found out early on that the police were lying about what happened. He interviewed the acting police chief and the officer driving the car before introducing his eight eyewitnesses. One-by-one, they testified how the police chief had either cajoled or threatened them to change their stories, he said. The police chief resigned.

In another memorable case, Trehy successfully prosecuted a defendant for second-degree murder in a civil case involving foster parents. A foster mother had murdered one of her foster children, and evidence pointed to the foster father being negligent in the case but he was never charged. This made the foster father the sole beneficiary of the estate of the deceased child who had five foster siblings. Bringing the second-degree murder charge was the only way to show that the foster father was a slayer under the law and eliminate him as a beneficiary.

“We got a successful verdict out of that, which meant he was no longer the beneficiary of a child murdered by torture, and the benefits would go to the five siblings. I represented the siblings in another suit, and that settled very nicely,” Trehy said.

Among his proudest moments was helping get the state’s statute of repose changed. He represented a client who was paralyzed in a roll-over, roof-crush incident. The case settled for an amount that allowed her to live comfortably for the rest of her life. Later, a friend was injured in the same kind of accident, sustaining the same injury. But her suit fell outside the statute of repose window.

Trehy helped NCAJ lobby legislators by bringing both women, who were confined to motorized wheelchairs, to the state legislature, where he testified before a committee.

“I was able to tell them that this woman here now lives on disability and is dependent on others for care while this other person lives in a home custom built for her, and the difference is a matter of months in the statute of repose,” Trehy said.

Legislators reached a compromise on the legislation and changed the statute.

“I feel in my heart of hearts that none of that would have happened if those two courageous women hadn’t paraded themselves in front of the legislators so they could see the stark contrast in justice received by two people over such an arbitrary reason of a few months,” he said.

But the prevailing accomplishment of Trehy’s career has been building relationships, he said. “I’ve never finished a case — and they’ve been hotly contested and fiercely litigated — without a friendly relationship developing,” he said. “That’s not easy to do. It takes effort. At one point, relationships are going to be more important to your career than any one case. … When you have someone who is difficult to deal with, rather than go to war with them, find a way to work with them. It’s impossible at times, and when that occurs, when you can’t work with them, it’s not time for you to lose your cool or lose your integrity, purpose or approach. It’s just a time to acknowledge that some people can’t be helped.”

In his free time, Trehy is a bicyclist and an avid reader, the type to have four books open at one time. While recovering from knee replacement surgery last winter he read. He also sings for Harmless Error, the rock’n’roll cover band born at NCAJ convention. Recent gigs have included a benefit for Ukraine at Durham’s Blue Note Grill. The band has also played for two weddings of NCAJ members’ children and has a third coming up this summer. Playing first-dance songs for kids who once splashed in the surf with his children at NCAJ Convention is one more way Trehy keeps the good NCAJ vibes going.

The NCAJ Hero Profile of Jay Trehy appears in the First Quarter 2023 edition of Trial Briefs.