From asbestos to tobacco to 9/11, Ronald L. Motley has been at the center of the cases that changed the world
Published in 2008 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on April 13, 2008
Updated on February 16, 2017
How many attorneys can say their courtroom performance has been nominated for an Oscar? Unfortunately, The World Almanac doesn’t track this particular statistic, but Ronald L. Motley has to be one of only a handful of lawyers who can claim their real-life courtroom drama helped nudge a film down the red carpet.
Not that he would, of course. Al Pacino and Russell Crowe may have had a little something to do with the 2000 Oscar nod for The Insider, but Motley, as played by veteran actor Bruce McGill, had a key scene so electrically charged it was used to advertise the film.
McGill’s Motley was attempting to depose the main character, Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe), a scientist formerly with Brown & Williamson. Wigand’s testimony that nicotine was a drug would contradict industry claims. As Wigand tried to utter words to that effect, the defense counsel kept objecting. The big-screen Motley eyed the lawyer and roared, “You will not stop me from deposing my witness.” The deposition began.
When it was all finished in 1998, the real Motley and fellow lead counsel Richard Scruggs won a $248 billion settlement from the country’s four largest tobacco companies. They represented state taxpayers across the nation, suing over Medicaid claims resulting from tobacco use.
Even though The Insider and the media coverage of the tobacco litigation may have introduced Motley to the general public, he made his name well before tobacco.
Two decades earlier, Motley was the lead attorney in the landmark cases that established asbestos as a health hazard. Today, the 62-year-old, along with a team from the 68-attorney, Mount Pleasant-based firm Motley Rice, represents thousands affected by the 9/11 attacks. As of mid-January 2008, the firm had settled 51 of the 58 cases in which family members of victims sued airlines and airport security companies for allowing the 19 terrorists to board the airplanes that day.
Motley Rice also represents more than 7,000 family members and rescue and recovery workers in a $1 trillion case against the alleged underwriters of the attacks. The lead plaintiffs are the parents of Tom Burnett, one of the passengers who fought the terrorists for control of United Flight 93.
The defendants are primarily wealthy businessmen in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries and the financial institutions they own, along with “charities” that funneled money to Al Qaeda. On the third floor of his office overlooking the Cooper River, Motley has amassed a database that a senior counter-terrorism official at the FBI calls “the best database on Islamic terrorism in the world,” according to London’s Sunday Times.
“Trying a case with Ron is like being a guitarist in Springsteen’s band,” says Don Migliori, who is Motley Rice’s lead counsel on the 9/11 cases against the airlines and security companies. “After a concert, you say, ‘That’s great,’ and you move on to the next town. He’s a rock star.”
Just as bruce Springsteen tells the stories of working-class heroes in his songs, Motley does the same in the courtroom. Many of his clients are blue-collar workers, and he grew up the son of gas station owners in North Charleston. His father, Woody, ran the operation, and his mother, Tease, kept the books.
Spending time with his dad and the working-class men who gathered at the Amoco station gave the young Motley an appreciation for the power of the spoken word. “My father had the gift of gab,” Motley says. “I acquired that and put it to good use.”
An avid reader and student at Chicora High School, Motley set his sights on law. His intellectual talent soon became clear at the University of South Carolina. “I don’t know that many of us did a lot of studying back in those days, but he always made A’s—it came so easy to him,” recalls longtime friend Jimmy Bailey.
After earning his undergraduate degree in history, Motley joined the Air Force Reserves, then worked briefly for IBM and tried teaching. “Not intellectually challenging,” he says of both.
When Motley excelled on the law school admission exam at the University of South Carolina, he was offered a scholarship. He became a star student and easily landed on the law review. His first job after graduation in June 1971 was a two-year clerkship for Federal Judge Solomon Blatt Jr., who was a former plaintiff’s attorney.
His working-class upbringing made the plaintiff’s side of law attractive. “I experienced the way my father helped people,” Motley recalls. “His gas station was right across from a housing project. He also had a fuel oil business. In cold winters, he would give them fuel oil when they couldn’t pay and tell them to pay when they had the money.”
Motley spent two years as an assistant county prosecutor in Greenwood before joining the judge’s former firm, Blatt & Fales, in Barnwell in 1975. Motley pursued product liability law, a relatively new field, and, in 1976, became the youngest president of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association at age 31.
When he started working on asbestos cases, he settled a few, but then hit a snag when he went to trial: inexperience. “The rookie got his ears pinned back,” Motley remembers. “They got me the first three times.” Undeterred, he used money from the previous settlements to forge ahead.
When that ran out, Blatt & Fales cut him off, tired of spending money on cases that seemed hopeless. Motley and colleague Terry Richardson took out a personal line of credit to keep going. “We had 2,000 to 3,000 [asbestos] cases in the office, and I wasn’t going to give up,” Motley recalls. “People were relying on us—they needed help.” Motley describes his work as “not a case, but a cause.”
“What turned the tide was finding whistleblowers,” he says. “They said the industry had knowledge that the substance was harmful.” The whistleblowers emerged after the U.S. government said in 1978 that an estimated 12 million Americans had been exposed to asbestos, says Motley. In the wake of the revelation, he was widely interviewed, including by 60 Minutes.
One particular asbestos trial showcased a quality that has been vital to Motley’s success—a photographic memory. When chatting with Dr. Dick Lemen, a former U.S. assistant surgeon general, Motley wanted to make sure the expert witness could provide a thorough history of asbestos-related disease.
In that March 2002 case in Indianapolis, Motley posed questions to the doctor that required a sharp recall of landmark findings from the 1950s and 1960s. “On answers to some questions, Ron could cite where the information was, almost to the page,” remembers colleague Migliori. “When Ron left the room, Dick said, ‘Nobody, including anybody in my field, knows the history of asbestos diseases better than that.’”
Motley eschews the electronic tools most professionals depend on. “My brain is my computer,” he says. His colleagues gave him a BlackBerry, which he doesn’t use. He often jots notes on a napkin and hands it to an associate after dinner. His assistant prints out his e-mails, he writes responses on them and she scans them into the computer to send back.
But, according to Migliori, even Motley’s database memory and supercomputer mind pale in comparison to the organic quality that makes his trial work fit for the big screen: an everyman charisma. “It’s what makes Ron, Ron,” Migliori says. Juries find him “absolutely lovable and believable. He could be dumber and still be tremendously successful.”