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.
Motley’s death was announced Thursday by his longtime law partner, Joe Rice, in an email sent to the S.C. Association for Justice, a statewide group of trial lawyers.
No cause of death was given, 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 served as lead counsel in lawsuits that ultimately yielded the largest civil settlement in U.S. history in which the tobacco industry agreed to reimburse states for smoking-related health care costs.
As part of the Ness Motley firm, he also sued on behalf of asbestos victims and the families of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack victims. Motley’s practice underwent a transformation in 2003 when he and Rice formed the Motley Rice firm. The Mount Pleasant-based practice is one of the largest plaintiffs’ firms in the country.
Columbia lawyer Ken Suggs, who is handling one of nationally-known Penn State cases, said, “Ron was hands down the most far-seeing, innovative and one of the most courageous lawyers that I’ve had the privilege to know.
“He took on the asbestos industry when no one else wanted to do it; he took on tobacco when no one else wanted to do it. Not only did he take those people on, but he beat them,” Suggs said.
“Both of those industries had a product they knew was harmful to human beings, and they covered it up. And both those lawyers were willing to spend millions to cover it up, and Ron was willing to go up against them,” Suggs said.
Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian called Motley “one of the premier lawyers of our generation. He was fearless in the courtroom, just fearless.”
Myrtle Beach medical malpractice lawyer Fayrell Furr, a longtime Motley friend, said the reason Motley got involved in asbestos litigation in the 1990s was that his mother died from complications of asbestos exposure.
“He took a personal interest in it,” Furr said.
He added that for the past year or so, Motley had been having health issues.
Motley’s tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s were in large part responsible for stiffer warnings on cigarette packages, restricted tobacco advertising and open acknowledgements by the tobacco industry that their products caused illness and death.
In the final tobacco settlements, which came after Motley and other lawyers proved that the companies had long hidden the addictive and harmful properties of cigarettes, tobacco 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..
His legal work made him a millionaire many times over.
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 received numerous accolades, including highest honors from the South Carolina Association for Justice and the American Association for Justice. He also was a member of The Trial Lawyer 2012 Hall of Fame.
In Rice’s email Thursday, he 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 people’s 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.
Rice also said Motley “was marked by unmatched courage in going after any wrong-doer, 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