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Lawyer took on tobacco, asbestos firms

August 27, 2013|Times Staff and Wire Reports
  • Whistleblower Jeffery Wigand, left, and South Carolina attorney Ronald Motley at a news conference in 1997. Motley's firm sued the tobacco industry and won a $246-billion settlement.
Whistleblower Jeffery Wigand, left, and South Carolina attorney Ronald… (Rick Bowmer, Associated…)

Ronald L. Motley, a crusading plaintiff's lawyer who took on the asbestos industry before targeting tobacco companies in a landmark victory for the anti-smoking movement that brought the biggest civil settlement in U.S. history, died Thursday in Charleston, S.C. He was 68.

The cause was complications from organ failure, said Don Migliori, a partner in his law firm.

In the 1990s Motley pioneered the development of mass-tort litigation to sue tobacco makers and companies that sold asbestos-laden building products. He recovered billions of dollars for workers and consumers who blamed the manufacturers' products for their illnesses.

In 1998 he helped his firm win a staggering $246-billion settlement from the tobacco industry.

William S. Ohlemeyer, a former in-house lawyer for Phillip Morris, who tried a tobacco case against Motley in Indiana, said he was a formidable opponent.

"It was impressive to watch him operate in the courtroom," Ohlemeyer, now a partner at the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said. "He was a spectacular trial lawyer who worked hard for his clients."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 30, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Ronald L. Motley: In the Aug. 27 LATExtra section, the obituary of attorney Ronald L. Motley, whose lawsuit targeting tobacco companies in 1998 brought the largest civil settlement in U.S. history, cited law partner Don Migliori as the source of a statement that Motley's hard-drinking lifestyle, documented in books such as "Civil Warriors" by Dan Zegart, led to health problems that left him in a wheelchair the last several years. Migliori was not the source of the reference to Motley's lifestyle and the "Civil Warriors" book.

The son of a gas-station owner in North Charleston, S.C., Motley became one of the United States' most feared plaintiff's lawyers. He could be seen striding across courtrooms in his "lucky" ostrich-skin boots and often used props to entertain jurors and annoy opponents.

As part of the tobacco industry settlement, in which companies agreed to make payments to states to resolve claims that cigarettes caused public-health dangers, Motley's firm earned an estimated $2 billion in fees.

The flamboyant attorney was portrayed by actor Bruce McGill in the 1999 movie "The Insider," an account of tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand's decision to expose the industry's knowledge about nicotine's addictiveness. The film starred Russell Crowe as Wigand.

Motley was born in Charleston on Oct. 21, 1944, and pumped gas at his father's service station in a working-class neighborhood.

He attended the University of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1966. He worked briefly as a high school history teacher before returning to the university where he obtained a law degree in 1971.

In the mid-1970s, after a stint as an assistant prosecutor in Greenwood, S.C., he began to make a name for himself by filing the first suits against Johns Manville Corp. and other companies that sold products containing asbestos.

Studies have shown the material can cause cancer and lung problems.

Motley and his law firm recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for workers injured by exposure to asbestos and forced more than 30 asbestos companies into bankruptcy.

The asbestos litigation made him a wealthy man. According to Forbes magazine, Motley took home $11 million in fees.

He and his firm invested profits from the asbestos victory into developing the case against tobacco.

For Motley, representing smokers who developed lung cancer was a personal matter: His mother was an ex-smoker who died from the disease in 1984.

"Ron said on many occasions that he was out to avenge his mother's death from tobacco through the litigation," said Jack McConnell, a former law partner who is now a federal judge in Providence, R.I.

To make his case, Motley sometimes turned to unusual courtroom props. In an asbestos case in Baltimore, he donned a white lab coat and used a toy doctor's kit as part of his cross-examination of a company's medical expert, McConnell said. During closing arguments in that case, Motley used a squirt gun to spray a defense exhibit.

Motley's lifestyle reflected his success.

He owned a mansion on Kiawah Island off the coast of Charleston, a $15-million yacht named Themis for the Greek goddess representing justice, and a pair of golden retrievers named Chrysotile and Amosite, after different kinds of asbestos. In 1999, the lawyer hired the soul group Earth, Wind & Fire to perform at his third wedding.

Married five times, he is survived by his wife, Stephanie; a daughter, Jennifer Lee; and three grandchildren.

His hard-drinking lifestyle was documented in books such as "Civil Warriors" by Dan Zegart and led to health problems that left him in a wheelchair the last several years, Migliori said.


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