RALEIGH, N.C. — The courtroom was packed and curious lawyers stood in the back. All eyes were on John Edwards, making his closing argument on behalf of a 5-year-old girl horribly injured in a wading pool accident.
For 90 minutes, politely but persistently, Edwards spoke, without notes, without missing a key point. Many here that January day in 1997, including the presiding judge, remember it as the best closing argument they had ever heard.
But what Edwards didn't tell the jury, and what even the judge didn't know then, was that the 43-year-old lawyer -- already a legend in the state's legal fraternity -- was taking an enormous gamble.
Only a few days earlier the defendant, the manufacturer of a plastic drain cover for the pool, had offered to settle the case for $17.5 million -- an amount twice as large as any personal injury verdict in North Carolina history. Yet Edwards had persuaded the girl's parents to turn it down and take their chances with the jury.
"I couldn't sleep the night before" that closing argument, Edwards recalled recently. So he lay awake honing his speech.
The jury deliberated for three hours before returning a verdict of $25 million. The verdict, the biggest jury award in Edwards' 20-year career as a personal injury lawyer, was followed a few months later by a $23-million judgment for the parents of a baby born with brain damage.
But then, abruptly, Edwards gave it all up to enter politics and challenge Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a conservative hog farmer and ally of Sen. Jesse Helms. Edwards spent $6.5 million of his own money -- nearly three-fourths of his total campaign war chest -- and defeated the incumbent, 51% to 47%.
Why did Edwards abandon a lucrative career to run for the Senate? Friends say those last two major cases, coming on the heels of the death of his son in an automobile accident, made Edwards reassess his life's priorities. He has said the decision grew out of his desire to help people on a larger scale than that offered by a court case. And some say it was equal parts ambition and competitive drive.
Now, approaching the end of his term in the Senate, Edwards is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He's gambling on that race too; he's already announced that, win or lose, he won't run for reelection to the Senate. Polls and pundits dismiss him as a long shot. But those who know Edwards best know better than to count him out.
"John is very competitive, and he has unlimited self-confidence," said David Kirby, his law partner and longtime friend. "And he rises to a challenge."
A Modest Beginning
John Edwards, 50, made a fortune during a career representing injured plaintiffs, winning more than $150 million in judgments from the state's notoriously tight-fisted juries. But he was born into a family of modest means. His father was a mill worker in Seneca, S.C., and his parents had to borrow $50 from a bank to pay the hospital cost for the birth of their first child, Johnny Reid Edwards.
The family moved to textile-mill towns across the South until settling in Robbins, N.C., where Edwards went to high school. He enrolled in textile studies at North Carolina State University. But what he really wanted to do was become a lawyer, so he went on to the University of North Carolina Law School. While there, he met Elizabeth Anania, the dark-haired daughter of a military family, and they married the summer after graduation.
The couple moved to Nashville, where Edwards worked as a corporate defense lawyer and his wife worked in bankruptcy law. After three years, they returned to North Carolina, and Edwards joined a law practice representing injured plaintiffs, especially children. Joined by Kirby, he would later set up his own firm specializing in personal injury suits.
His first big case came in 1984 when he was asked to represent E.G. Sawyer, a wheelchair-bound man living in a seedy, one-room apartment in Asheville.
A formerly robust salesman, Sawyer had gone to an Asheville hospital to quit drinking. There, a doctor gave him the drug Antabuse, prescribed to help alcoholics dry out, at three times the maximum dosage. Sawyer lapsed into a coma and emerged with brain damage and paralysis.
Edwards sued the hospital on Sawyer's behalf. In a meeting with the hospital's lawyers and the judge, he said he would settle the case for $1.5 million, an estimate based on Sawyer's medical needs.
"That's ridiculous," the judge told Edwards, then 31. "You're just trying to get a notch on your belt, aren't you?" Asheville jurors are conservative, the judge said, and they are not likely to look fondly on a drunk who sues the hospital. The hospital offered $20,000 to settle the case.
Edwards refused the offer and took the case to trial. He brought in a series of medical experts who testified about the recognized danger of giving high doses of Antabuse.