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Ron Motley hardly slept the night before the verdict.
He went to bed in his suite on the seventh floor of the Radisson at ten o’clock complaining of a headache and never really dozed off. His bodyguard, a refrigerator-sized black man named Larry who once provided security for the Saudi royal family, watched television with him and retired to his room.
Larry was there because Motley had received a steady stream of death threats since he started suing tobacco companies four years earlier. Another came a week before.
“We know where you are and you’ll be dead by midnight,” said a voice on his answering machine back home in South Carolina.
By the spring of 1998, the anti-tobacco side had lost a lot of sleep worrying about stolen information, tapped phones, hidden documents and death threats. It gave rise to jokes about living in a John Grisham novel, but it wasn’t very funny for those on the inside of the experience. Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco whistleblower and close friend of Motley’s, moved out of Louisville, Kentucky after being threatened by telephone and having a bullet left in his mailbox. The bullet was an armor-piercing Israeli specialty round, a very nasty addition to the day’s bills and letters. A lawyer for another ex-tobacco insider became convinced he was being followed one day in traffic, jumped out of his car at a red light, ran back to the other car and screamed that if he ever saw the driver again, he’d beat him to a pulp.
Motley wondered whether it was all a continuum. Would an industry that lied and shredded also wiretap and have you followed? Would they put a bullet in your mailbox? Would they beat you up? Ness, Motley, Loadholt, Richardson & Poole, Motley’s law firm in Charleston, South Carolina, which had spent $30 million on tobacco cases and so far received not a red cent in return, took no chances. They hired the best bodyguard they could find, and that was Larry.
It made eminent sense to me that if anyone was going to be knocked off, it probably should be Motley. I’d traveled with him enough to know he was the war-time consigliere, the chief soldier on the plaintiff’s side. Here in Muncie, Indiana, he put his case against the industry before a jury for six long weeks in February and March of 1998. He had spent almost five years building it, fighting to get documents, taking scores of depositions, developing elaborate charts and videos on how tobacco smoke assaults the lung, befriending people like Jeff Wigand, whom Motley flew to Charleston after Wigand lost his home, his job and his marriage.
And now, having completed the biggest fight of his tobacco life, Motley ached to go to sleep. But he couldn’t.
Forty other people from Ness, Motley had also come to Muncie, taking the whole third and seventh floors of the Radisson for offices and sleeping quarters and living there from January into the spring. While Motley tossed and turned upstairs, most of them were at a big, loud party in the Radisson bar, where they got drunker and blearier than they had gotten in a really long time. The men and women who attack giant corporations for a living aren’t shy and retiring, and there was a good deal of bright plumage in evidence — pastel suits, paisley ties and cowboy boots — and an abundance of comely female junior lawyers and aides in form-fitting dresses and short skirts. There was a lot of noise and a lot of laughter. A little later, some of the tobacco lawyers showed up, a quieter, more conservative breed. But in the end, the tobacco crowd and the plaintiff’s bunch made merry together, more or less, the steadily drinking tobacco men drooping in their trenchcoats over the Ness, Motley women.
Motley didn’t materialize downstairs until the next afternoon, a full day into the jury’s deliberations and long after the party had ended. He strolled into the lobby and sat down in a chair to wait for news. Within minutes he was surrounded by the secretaries and paralegals and junior lawyers who make his entourage one of the more fetching flying circuses outside of the rock ‘n roll world, about which a female reporter in Florida once remarked, “Aren’t there any male assistants?” Somebody opened a couple of beers and the ladies took turns massaging his neck.
It was a balmy March day in Indiana and by seven o’clock there was still no word from the jury. Someone arranged to have a Suburban come and take what was generally called the Motley Crew — and me — to a steak restaurant.
As we drove across the little city and its gloomy boarded-up downtown, I thought back to the summer of 1994, when I first met Ron Motley, which in retrospect seemed a time of such optimism and simplicity.
The man who answered the door of a New Orleans hotel room had slicked-back black hair and a deep Southern accent. He wore a hand-tailored blue silk suit, but his socks didn’t match. I later learned he was color blind. His handshake was ice cold, as if all the blood had gone to his face, which was red. He had piercing dark eyes, but a voice like warm bourbon.
We sat down and talked while he munched a waffle at a little glass-topped table near the window, his right leg bouncing up and down like it had electrodes on it.
He became steadily more intoxicated with his story as he explained why he was out to get the tobacco men.
“I’m telling you, you can’t find a family in America they haven’t touched,” he said, veins standing out in his neck.
“That’s why we’re going to beat ‘em.”
He sprang up and fluttered through the room, yanking papers out of a briefcase, stepping into the bathroom.
“Eventually,” he muttered, peering into the mirror.
Then he darted out and grabbed the phone, charming his way past a colleague’s child to learn whether Ness, Motley had won a court decision on a $1.3 billion asbestos lawsuit.
At that time, Motley and others were massing the talent of the biggest personal injury law firms in the country for an assault on the hitherto impregnable citadel of tobacco. This coalition improved the odds considerably for the plaintiff’s side against an industry that by a very conservative estimate had wiped out seven million Americans since the Surgeon General first warned that cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.
Another set of arithmetic showed that the several dozen firms that joined forces with Motley had during their careers extracted billions of dollars from the asbestos and pharmaceuticals industries whose products had injured a tiny fraction of the lives laid waste by cigarettes. Yet the tobacco industry had never paid damages to a soul. To the plaintiff’s lawyers, the cigarette cartel was Mount Everest, or maybe Fort Knox. These two forces seemed destined to meet in some historic conflict.