Warrior for the Worker
Ken Suggs remembers his roots
Published in 2009 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on April 12, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
Before every trial Ken Suggs watches Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Not the whole thing. Just the part immediately before the Battle of Agincourt where Henry tells the French herald, Montjoy, that he will not surrender to France.
Suggs knows the words by heart, “Good God, why should they mock poor fellows thus? Let me speak proudly. Tell the constable we are but warriors for the working day. Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field. But by the mass, our hearts are in the trim.”
“That’s my favorite,” says Suggs, a trial lawyer who focuses on medical malpractice with Janet, Jenner & Suggs in Columbia. “That’s usually how I feel [before a trial].”
The 62-year-old partner’s allegiance to the working class comes from growing up in Piedmont, a small mill village halfway between Anderson and Greenville. When he was 3, his father took off, leaving his mother to raise Suggs and his sister. Sitting in his office in the Suggs & Kelly Law Center in downtown Columbia, he remembers what evenings were like in Piedmont.
“After you did your homework, all the kids would play outside … and all the daddies would be out working on cars or fixing something in the backyards,” recalls Suggs. “Every one of the fathers was missing something—a finger, a hand, an eye, something that had been chopped off in the mill, and there was nothing they could do about that because they were completely at the power of the people who owned the mill.”
Even as a young child, that didn’t sit well with Suggs. “There was no justice in that so I decided that if I was going to be a lawyer, I was going to be a lawyer that would help the people that I came from,” he says.
Since graduating from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1975 cum laude, that’s exactly what he’s done.
Wearing a navy blue blazer over a light blue and orange checked dress shirt coupled with khakis, Suggs has a casual demeanor that exudes a father-like trust. A goatee gives him a youthfulness that complements his personality.
“I feel younger than 62,” says Suggs, who works approximately 70 hours a week and is in court at least 12 weeks out of the year. “I love the intellectual challenge of learning something new all the time, keeping up with the medicine as well as the law. I love to cross-examine witnesses. I love to talk to the jury. I love being in court.”
Suggs has been rewarded with some substantial verdicts with both financial and historical significance. In 2004 Suggs won his biggest verdict, $48 million including punitive damages, for Heritage Propane Partners (now Energy Transfer Partners) against SCANA Corp. for breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act. (A judge later reduced the amount to $18 million.)
Reece Williams, a partner at Callison Tighe & Robinson in Columbia, represented one of the co-defendants, Suburban Propane, in the SCANA case and says that Suggs is known for being civil but focused.
“Ken is not easily diverted. … Ken will not spend any time on something where the conclusion is going to be obvious,” says Williams. “He’s not a showboat lawyer. He’s very effective. His cross-examination of witnesses is thorough and right on the money, and generally speaking, he is quite familiar with the rules of evidence so you don’t have any objections.”
Dick Ellis, a trial lawyer and founding partner at Ellis & Winters in Cary was opposing counsel to Suggs in a number of breast implant cases in the late 1990s. “He’s succinct. You can rely on what he says, and his approach to and analysis of cases is thoroughly rational,” says Ellis. “He’ll go to a deposition, and he’ll know what he wants and what he needs and instead of taking a deposition for hours and hours and hours, he will get what I know and he knows to be a couple of things that he can use later and then he’ll quit. … I think it takes great courage and confidence to do that.”
The verdicts Suggs says he’s most proud of are the ones that made the biggest impact on the law. Early in his career when he was practicing at Lee & Suggs in Columbia and the textile industry was thriving in South Carolina, he took on cases involving brown lung disease, medically known as byssinosis.
“We started bringing those cases and developed some doctors that would testify,” says Suggs, citing a case involving Mohasco Corp. (Dixiana Mill Division). “[There were] two little old ladies who worked side by side in the mill, and both of them basically collapsed on the same day with chronic lung disease, and we filed their comp cases,” he says.
Suggs eventually won the case in the South Carolina Supreme Court. “It’s the first case that ended up interpreting the occupational disease law in South Carolina, and it came out so that it was pretty favorable to claimants,” says Suggs. “That was one of the high points.”
Another high point for Suggs was the case that abolished contributory negligence in South Carolina. As a young lawyer trying automobile collision cases, Suggs kept asking judges to charge comparative negligence as opposed to contributory, which stated if the plaintiff was 1 percent at fault no matter how much the defendant was at fault, the plaintiff got no recovery.
“The judges would just sort of laugh at me,” remembers Suggs, who eventually lost a case where that was the only issue on appeal. He appealed it in the early 1980s, and the South Carolina Court of Appeals wrote an opinion abolishing contributory negligence. The South Carolina Supreme Court later quashed the opinion.
Not one to run away from a challenge, Suggs brought a case to the South Carolina Supreme Court in the early 1990s involving a woman who hit a tractor-trailer truck parked on an interstate entrance ramp at dawn. This case, Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., abolished contributory negligence and established that a plaintiff can recover if his or her negligence is not greater than the defendant’s. “We were in the vast minority of states across the country still applying this old doctrine of contributory negligence,” says Suggs, who still gets excited when he tells the story.
After Graduating from Clemson University with a bachelor’s in economics in 1968, he had aspirations of being a writer and was accepted into graduate school there for English. Knowing he was going to be drafted, Suggs joined the United States Navy instead.
Four years later, two spent in and out of Vietnam, Suggs enrolled at University of South Carolina’s School of Law. At the end of his first year, he figured out that the money he saved from the Navy wasn’t going to last him two more years so he began calling lawyers in the phone book for a job.
“I called a lawyer named Luther Lee, who was a well-known plaintiff’s lawyer in Columbia. I went and interviewed with him,” remembers Suggs. “I had grown a beard when I got out of the Navy, and he said, ‘If you shave the beard, I’ll hire you.’ And so I did and he did, and he made me a partner when I graduated from law school.” Suggs stayed for five years.
In 1981 he founded Suggs & Kelly with Mike Kelly, an attorney who also worked at Lee & Suggs, and practiced with him until 2004. “We were just doing way different things. Mike was mostly doing workman’s comp and Social Security disability,” says Suggs. “I was doing all this medical malpractice and product liability, and it just worked out better for us to split the practices up.”
These days Suggs focuses almost 80 percent of his work on medical malpractice, cerebral palsy cases in particular. “He’s very quick to pick up on the medicine when I’m explaining it to him,” says Dr. Giles Manley, a board certified obstetrician/gynecologist who practiced for 20 years and is now an attorney at Janet, Jenner & Suggs’ Baltimore office. “He’s a true advocate of those that have had things done wrong to them. He’s just a tireless worker.”
Filled with a slew of awards, including The American Association for Justice’s Harry Philo Award in 2007, ABA Trial and Insurance Practice Section Pursuit of Justice Award from 2008, and the 2007 South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association Founder’s Award, Suggs’ office also contains pictures of children he’s represented with cerebral palsy.
His wife, Dottie, who works as his legal assistant, has a colorful drawing on her office door that was created by Nathan Gardner, a 6-year-old Suggs won a $13.5 million verdict for in 2007 (now on appeal). By using a computer program, Nathan, who suffers from cerebral palsy, drew the picture with his feet, the only part of his body he can purposely move.
Nathan’s mother, Debra, had a normal pregnancy. When she was induced into labor at 42 weeks, things didn’t progress as the doctors had hoped so they had to do a spinal block. “They took all the monitoring off of him, and my blood pressure started dropping when they did the spinal,” recalls 29-year-old Debra, a single mom who lives in Leon, Iowa, with her son. “That meant it was cutting off oxygen to Nathan.”
Weighing 12 pounds, Nathan went without oxygen for 23 minutes and had a heart rate of 90 when he was born. Six months later he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. At the encouragement of her mother and sister, Debra decided to seek legal counsel and found Suggs through an 800-number.
“I decided to call to see if I could at least give my son the best shot he could possibly have,” says Debra, who communicates with Nathan through head shakes, gazes and pointing. “As soon as I met him, I knew that in Iowa, that his personality would win them over far better than anybody else’s. … He’s not overwhelming. He’s not intimidating to me.”
Suggs meets with all of his clients in their homes before a trial so he can understand what their daily life is like. Debra says she was a little nervous when he came to visit but that his “calming presence” quickly made the situation comfortable.
“There was a point where they went to read the jury’s verdict, and I just started sobbing uncontrollably,” remembers Debra. “Next thing I know I’ve got him hanging onto my hands.”
Moments like that make everything worthwhile to Suggs and bring to mind another one of his favorite films.
“I feel like I’m in Philadelphia. There’s a little piece of that movie when Tom Hanks is on the stand and Denzel Washington says, ‘What do you love about the law, Andrew?’ and he says, ‘Every now and then, not often, but occasionally, you get to be a part of justice being done,'” says Suggs. “I love that.”