Famed lawyer who challenged asbestos, tobacco dies at 68

Attorney Ron Motley in 1999.

Ronald L. Motley, the hard-charging Mount Pleasant trial attorney who spearheaded billion-dollar lawsuits against the asbestos and tobacco industries, then launched a daring legal crusade to identify al-Qaida’s financiers, died Thursday. He was 68.

An outsized character in and out of the courtroom, Motley was a pioneer in the use of class-action lawsuits against companies that poisoned workers, or in the case of tobacco, sold products that caused widespread health problems.

Joe Rice, co-founder of Motley Rice, said that Motley’s life was “marked by unmatched courage in going after any wrongdoer, no matter how big and powerful.”

“He was absolutely a giant in the law,” added Linda Lipsen, chief executive officer of American Association for Justice, the nation’s largest trial lawyer group. “What differentiated him from other lawyers was that he took cases that no one thought had a chance. He is the reason why hundreds of thousands of people across the world who never got a fair shake were compensated. He broke the mold.”

In interviews, Motley portrayed himself and his firm as counterweights to profit-hungry corporations and a government that failed to address serious issues of public health and safety. He often mentioned his humble roots as a son of a gas station owner in North Charleston. And at his height, his plain-talking style charmed and entertained juries. To make a point, he once shot a squirt gun at a defense lawyer. Another time, he walked into a courtroom wearing medical scrubs. For luck, he occasionally wore a pair of ostrich-skin boots he bought after an early asbestos win.

Armed with a library of incriminating documents, whistleblowers, expert witnesses and Motley’s courtroom charisma, Motley’s teams often walked away with multimillion-dollar verdicts. The National Law Journal called him “one of the most influential lawyers in America.”

His success also made him a target of critics who said trial lawyers had created multimillion-dollar lawsuit factories that raked in massive fees while sometimes leaving clients with pennies on the dollar. He received death threats because of his work on tobacco and terrorism cases, and he frequently traveled with a bodyguard.

While Motley enjoyed enormous success in courtrooms, his personal life was marked by tragedy. His younger brother died when Motley was 13. His mother, a heavy smoker, died of emphysema in 1984, an experience he said fueled his desire to tackle Big Tobacco. His son, Mark, died in 2000 from a medical error at a hospital in Florida.

He was known to work hard and celebrate even harder. In 1999, he hired Earth, Wind & Fire to perform at what was then his third wedding. His extravagant lifestyle and binges were well documented in books and magazine articles. Colleagues talk with amazement about his ability to party into the wee hours and then go for early morning runs before court. His firm reported the cause of death as respiratory complications, but colleagues reported that his hard living had taken a toll, and that his overall health had declined dramatically in recent years.

Motley was born October 21, 1944. He graduated from Chicora High School in North Charleston, and earned his undergraduate degree from University of South Carolina and his law degree from USC’s School of Law. He took risks early. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, also an attorney, remembers a case early in Motley’s career. “He spent so much time investigating it, and at that time he didn’t have much money,” Riley said. “He didn’t win that case, but I remember how gutsy he was, and how he was prepared to give everything on behalf of his client.”

While practicing in Barnwell in the mid-1970s, Motley began suing companies on behalf of people exposed to asbestos fibers, including clients who frequented his father’s Amoco station and worked at the Charleston’s Naval Shipyard. After a few wins, he took on more clients, which led to even more. Within a few years, he represented about 200,000 victims.

Motley perfected the technique of mass torts, a legal strategy in which lawyers combine hundreds and sometimes thousands of clients’ cases into a single high-stakes lawsuit. To carry out these cases, his firm, Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, developed a nationwide network of local attorneys. These lawyers did the field work, identifying clients and filing the appropriate claims and motions in their hometown courts. If a case came to trial — and the potential for huge verdicts often led to settlements out of court — Motley and his team parachuted in like a special-forces unit.

It was in the courtroom where Motley earned his reputation. Lawyers speak with awe about his ability to recall a detail from a seemingly inconsequential deposition and use it to shred a witness.

“He’s just a legend,” said Rod Jernigan, president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. “Think about asbestos: Schools, churches and old homes were full of it, and Ron Motley changed the entire construction industry so it was removed. If you’re breathing clean air now because it doesn’t have asbestos, you can thank Ron Motley.”

Largely because of his firm’s work, more than 30 asbestos companies declared bankruptcy. Then, using money made from asbestos lawsuits, he took on the tobacco companies, spending $30 million to represent states suing over the public health costs of smoking. Motley, wrote Martha Derthick in the 2011 book “Up in Smoke,” was a “one-man embodiment of nationally coordinated tort actions. High-living, hard-drinking, passionate, profane, and very smart, Motley flew in his Cessna Citation III, from one deposition to another, one document cache to another, one negotiation to another, all over the country.”

Motley worked closely with Joe Rice, with Motley doing the heavy lifting in court and Rice working the levers at the negotiating table. Their success came to a head in 1998, when tobacco companies agreed to pay states more than $246 billion over the next 25 years, the largest civil settlement in U.S. history.

Mike Moore, the former Mississippi Attorney General who led the tobacco litigation, remembers a key moment when burly tobacco company lawyers tried to intimidate a witness, prompting Motley to tell them to “wipe that smirk off your face.” “He put them in their place,” Moore said. The scene was later depicted in the 1999 movie, “The Insider.” “Defense lawyers feared him because they didn’t know what he was going to do next.”

Motley kept in his office framed copies of tobacco industry bank deposit slips, one for Mississippi worth $170 million and one for Texas for $15.3 billion. It has been widely reported that his firm earned $2 billion from the settlement. Front and center on Motley’s desk was a large round glass ashtray that had “Thank you for smoking” embossed on it.

Over the years, Motley acquired the trappings of his corporate targets, including private aircraft and a mansion on Kiawah Island. His 156-foot yacht, Themis, named after the Greek titaness of law, was often moored at the City Marina. In 2002, more than a dozen attorneys left Ness Motley to form their own firm. The split degenerated into lawsuits over the use of the firm’s $13.6 million jet, legal fees from past cases and other issues. As a result, partners changed the firm’s name from Ness Motley to Motley Rice.

Motley’s success had a ripple effect throughout Charleston. Flush with tobacco and asbestos cash, he and current and former partners made large donations to area causes. He created the Mark Elliot Motley Foundation, in memory of his son. “He was a transformative figure in the practice of law in Charleston, the state and our country,” Riley said. “The fact that he was here and led the firm to national prominence was a huge benefit to the community.”

Though wealthy, Motley also came off as vulnerable, and close associates were fiercely protective about his binges and other foibles. In a series of interviews with The Post and Courier in 2003, Motley spoke often about the pain of his son’s death.

By then, Motley had immersed himself in one of his most ambitious legal campaigns – lawsuits on behalf of more than 6,000 Sept. 11 victims. To identify al-Qaida’s financiers, he and a cadre of lawyers and special investigators used data-collection techniques befitting a government intelligence unit. Agents for the firm acquired documents from warlords in Afghanistan and dispatched attorneys worldwide to interview potential witnesses.

Motley and other attorneys eventually filed lawsuits against more than 200 entities for $1 trillion in damages, including three Saudi princes, some of the world’s most prominent Islamic charities and an assortment of Middle Eastern banks and billionaires.

But unlike his fights against Big Tobacco and asbestos industries, the terrorism litigation made little headway. Many defendants were dismissed; other aspects of the litigation are still working through appellate courts. Despite the mixed results, the firm’s work attracted international attention and spawned other human rights cases. In 2005, the firm filed lawsuits on behalf of children sold into slavery to become camel-race jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. The firm pursued Hamas ties to Middle Eastern banks. Motley Rice now has more than 65 attorneys working on cases ranging from asbestos to zinc in denture cream, and is one of the largest plaintiffs’ firms in the country.

Co-founder Rice said Motley’s death was not only a personal loss to him and Motley’s family, “but also for so many more for whom Ron also was a devoted friend, mentor, collaborator, legal adversary and fellow crusader for justice.”

During the course of his career, Motley received many national awards, including the American Association for Justice’s lifetime achievement award. In early August, the S.C. Association for Justice presented him with the group’s Founders’ Award.

“He was the best trial lawyer South Carolina ever produced,” former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings said, adding that Motley had his share of personal flaws, “but was always the kindest fellow to others. He contributed to organizations locally, and he built one of the leading trial firms in the country, right here in Charleston.”

He leaves behind a daughter, Jennifer, and his wife, Stephanie Poston Motley. Stuhr’s Downtown Chapel is handling funeral arrangements.

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