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Ronald Motley: The Lawyer Who Beat Big Tobacco


If Ronald Lee Motley hadn't existed, some novelist or screenwriter surely would have made him up: a high-powered, flamboyant attorney with a smooth-as-silk Southern drawl who fancied ostrich-skin cowboy boots and liked to sail on a 165-foot yacht named after Themis, the female Greek titan of law, whenever he wasn't in a courtroom whacking corporate bigwigs around like so many piñatas.

Motley, who died on Aug. 22 at age 68 in Charleston, S.C., was both so larger-than-life colorful and so effective that he did actually become a character in a Hollywood movie: 2ooo's The Insider, in which the only slightly fictionalized version of him, portrayed by actor Bruce McGill, dresses down a tobacco industry executive and his lawyer.

Motley is most famous for taking on the tobacco industry in the 1990s over the health costs of smoking, which it had known about but kept secret for years, and forcing cigarette companies to pay out a massive $246 billion settlement - the biggest such payout in history. It was a victory that brought his law firm at least $1 billion in fees, according to news reports.

But Motley also took on a wide range of other powerful interests, from asbestos manufacturers - he forced them to pay out millions in damages to injured workers - to the wealthy Saudi nationals whom he accused of bankrolling the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Here are some intriguing facts about Motley:

  • Born and schooled in South Carolina, the son of a gas station owner and a schoolteacher, he was a huge New York Yankees fan.
  • He wasn't below using theatrics to make a point in the courtroom. He once used a squirt gun to spray a legal opponent's exhibit, and another time donned a white lab coat while cross-examining an asbestos company's medical expert.
  • He was motivated to take on tobacco companies in part because his mother, an ex-smoker, died of lung cancer.
  • He claimed that he didn't know how to turn on a computer. "As they say in the Bible, I'm antediluvian," he told the New York Times in 1999.
  • He owned a pair of golden retrievers, Chrysotile and Amosite, whom he named after types of asbestos.
  • He hired Earth, Wind and Fire to perform at one of his five weddings.


Photo: Motley Rice Law Firm


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