Ron Motley--asbestos and tobacco 'class-action pioneer'--has died


Ron Motley

South Carolina lawyer Ronald L. Motley who led billion-dollar suits against the asbestos and tobacco industries died Thursday. He was 68.

“Ron was a true giant of the legal profession. A trail blazer and innovator,” Motley’s longtime friend and Motley Rice co-founder Joe Rice said in a statement. Rice described Motley as “A charismatic master of the courtroom. A tenacious interrogator. The greatest trial lawyer ever. All 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 had been wronged.”

In a lengthy article, Charleston Post and Courier characterized Motley as “an outsized character in and out of the courtroom.”

“Motley was a pioneer in the use of class-action lawsuits against companies that poisoned workers, or in the case of tobacco, sold products that caused widespread health problems,” the paper recounts in a story about Motley’s legacy.

In its colorful account, the Post and Courier recalled Motley’s personality in practice and in the courtroom:

“Motley portrayed himself and his firm as counterweights to profit-hungry corporations and a government that failed to address serious issues of public health and safety. He often mentioned his humble roots as the son of a gas station owner in North Charleston. And at his height, his plain-talking style charmed and entertained juries. To make a point, he once shot a squirt gun at a defense lawyer. Another time, he walked into a courtroom wearing medical scrubs. For luck, he occasionally wore a pair of ostrich skin boots he bought after an early asbestos win.”

Motley was lead counsel in the tobacco lawsuits that yielded the largest civil settlement in U.S. history, in which the tobacco industry agreed to reimburse states for smoking-related health care costs, the Associated Press reports.

Born Oct. 21, 1944, Motley earned his undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina in 1966 and his law degree in 1971 from USC’s School of Law.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley recalled Motley taking risks and remembered one case in particular. “He spent so much time investigating it, and at that time he didn’t have much money,” Riley is quoted saying. “He didn’t win that case, but I remember how gutsy he was, and how he was prepared to give everything on behalf of his client.”

The Post and Courier notes that Motley began suing companies on behalf of clients exposed to toxins early in his career.

Motley is survived by a daughter, Jennifer, and wife, Stephanie. On Monday, the family will receive friends at the Motley Rice office in Mount Pleasant. The funeral will be held Tuesday at 11 a.m. in the St. Andrews Church Ministry Center in Mount Pleasant. Additional info may be found here.

Updated on Aug. 26 to add information about the funeral service and visitation.

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