CHARLESTON, SC — Ron Motley, the South Carolina trial lawyer who helped develop strategies that brought the asbestos and tobacco industries to their knees, has died in Charleston. He was 68.
No cause of death was given for the trial lawyer, and funeral arrangements have not been announced.
“He was a true lion in our profession, taking cases most of us wouldn’t even consider because of the sizable risk and expense,” said Columbia lawyer Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney, who served with Motley on a national association of trial lawyers board.
Motley’s death was announced Thursday morning by his longtime law partner, Joe Rice, in an email sent to the S.C. Association for Justice, a statewide group of trial lawyers.
“Ron’s passing is an incalculable loss for all those he devoted his life’s work to, whether it was people sick from asbestos poisoning, State Attorneys General taking on Big Tobacco, 9/11 family members seeking to bankrupt terrorism, or anyone else who wanted his or her day in court to redress injustice,” Rice said.
Motley’s legal work not only had a positive effect on Americans’ health — his tobacco lawsuits were in large part responsible for stiffer warnings on cigarette packages and acknowledgements by the tobacco industry that their products caused illness and death — but it made him a millionaire many times over.
In the final tobacco settlements, which came after Motley and other lawyers proved that the companies had long hid the addictive and harmful properties of cigarettes, cigarette companies agreed to pay states more than $200 billion to reimburse them for the higher health costs that smoking caused.
Motley also sued lead paint manufacturers, car companies and drug makers, using class action lawsuits that gathered in hundreds and thousands of potential plaintiffs.
When asked about money he won, Motley had been known to quote Dolly Levi from the musical “Hello, Dolly!”
"Money is like manure...It should be spread around to help young things grow," according to a 2003 article in Business Week. The article also noted he had a yacht, numerous homes and “a flattering portrait in the 1999 movie, The Insider.”
Motley’s practice underwent a transformation in 2003, when he and Rice officially formed the Motley Rice firm. The Mount Pleasant-based practice is one of the largest plaintiffs’ firms in the country.
Ken Suggs, a past president of both the South Carolina and national plaintiffs’ lawyers groups, called Motley one of the most diligent and hardest-working attorneys in the state. Suggs also noted that Motley was willing to go after obvious evils but will be remembered most for his work in going up against the tobacco and asbestos companies.
“In both of those cases, he faced people on the other side, industries that were truly evil and were willing to go to almost any lengths to cover up the harm they were causing,” Suggs said. “Ron was the guy who saw these products … that were accepted in the industry and society, but saw the harm there and did something that people weren’t, in the beginning, willing to do.”
In Rice’s email, he also said, “Like many of you, I started my career learning from Ron the ins and outs of fighting the asbestos industry. It was because of Ron’s passion, tenacity, intelligence and persistence that he was able to secure the first victory in favor of a plaintiff against an industry that had knowingly put peoples’ health in jeopardy for decades.
“That victory would be just one in the beginning of a respected law career that allowed him to be a pioneer for justice and warrior for social accountability.
“As many of you experienced first-hand, Ron was many things. A true giant of the legal profession. A trail blazer and innovator. A charismatic master of the courtroom. A tenacious interrogator. But most of all, he was marked by unmatched courage in going after any wrongdoer, no matter how big and powerful, and by his bottomless well of compassion for those who have been wronged.”
The Associated Press contributed.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.