Cowart, Dax S. (1947–2019)


By: Rebecca Permar

Type: Biography

Published: November 11, 2020

Updated: November 12, 2020


Dax S. Cowart, Texas trial lawyer and patient’s rights advocate, originally named Donald Herbert Cowart, was born to Thomas Ray Cowart and Ada Bernice (Triplett) Cowart on December 16, 1947, in Harlingen, Texas, where his parents raised Santa Gertrudis cattle. Due to a heavy drought, his family moved from the Rio Grande Valley to the East Texas town of Henderson, where Cowart spent his youth. Nicknamed “Donny Boy” by his father, Cowart excelled in high school athletics at Henderson High School. He was captain of his high school varsity football team and performed in rodeos as a bull and bronco rider. After graduation from high school, Cowart attended Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville) before enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1970. Following graduation, Cowart was drafted into the United States military. He elected to join the U. S. Air Force and flew C-141 aircraft during the Vietnam War. He was discharged from active duty in 1973 but continued to serve as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve.

In July 1973, when he was twenty-five, Cowart was involved in an accident in East Texas. A leaking propane gas pipeline caused an explosion that killed his father and left Cowart with severe burns to approximately 65 percent of his total body surface area, with third-degree burns to his face, ears, and hands. It also resulted in the loss of both of his eyes, severe damage to his hearing, and the loss of all of his fingers except for part of his left thumb. Cowart was first admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and later treated at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He continuously expressed the desire to decline the extremely painful burn treatment procedures but was overruled by professional caregivers. The 1974 documentary Please Let Me Die, showed Cowart, although heavily medicated, exercising rational arguments in favor of making his own personal treatment decisions. Cowart was released after having been subjected to fourteen months of surgeries, skin grafts, and other treatments. Suffering from depression, he attempted suicide in the wake of his treatment. Ten years later in 1984 Cowart appeared in another documentary, Dax’s Case, as a forceful advocate for the right of competent adults to exercise autonomy in making their own medical decisions.

With the aid of assistive devices, Cowart earned his doctor of jurisprudence from the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock in 1986. He established his own law practice in Henderson, Texas, and successfully sued the oil company responsible for his burns. During this period, Cowart legally changed his name to “Dax”; he stated that the name was easier to hear and distinguish from the name of “Donald.” In 1996 Cowart joined Hilliard & Munoz, a Corpus Christi law firm that specialized in personal injury cases. As he had no fingers to read Braille, he focused on listening to lectures and case law and mastered information by memory. Cowart also served as a trial skills teacher at Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyer’s College in Dubois, Wyoming, and participated as a trial counsel and strategy advisor for other attorneys, including Samantha Berryessa, whom he married in 2003. Two earlier marriages—to Sharla L. Stone in 1971 and Karen Bolton in 1983—ended in divorce. After his last marriage he lived on a ranch near San Diego, California.

Motivated from his personal experience and using his professional background, Cowart became a prominent patient’s rights advocate. He continuously argued for patient autonomy and the right to choose, even if that choice meant death. Cowart’s experience has become a famous bioethics case and multiple films have been made to document his journey. These include: Please Let Me Die (1974), Dax’s Case (1984), the 20/20 segment titled “Dax’s Story” (1999), and Dax Cowart: 40 Years Later (2013). He died of cancer in Fallbrook, California, on April 28, 2019.

Baltimore Sun, April 29, 1998. Samantha Berryessa, “On the Road to Justice! In Loving Memory of Dax S. Cowart, Attorney at Law, 1947–2019 (https://berryessalaw.com/attorney-cowart), accessed November 5, 2020. Houston Chronicle, June 1, 2019. Lonnie D. Kleiver, ed., Dax’s Case: Essays in Medical Ethics and Human Meaning (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989). New York Times, May 20, 2019. William J. Winslade, “A Tribute for Dax Cowart, 1947–2019,” Bioethics.net, May 14, 2019 (http://www.bioethics.net/2019/05/a-tribute-for-dax-cowart-1947-2019/), accessed November 5, 2020. Monica L. Gerrick, “Getting Past Dax,” AMA Journal of Ethics 20 (June 2018).

Categories:
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Advocates
  • Health and Medicine
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Southeast Texas
  • Gulf Coast Region
  • Corpus Christi

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Rebecca Permar, “Cowart, Dax S.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/cowart-dax-s.

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November 11, 2020
November 12, 2020

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