In the summer of 1992, a time when fortune first began to bless him with riches, Dick Scruggs received a disturbing call from his close friend Mike Moore, the attorney general of Mississippi. Moore reported that he had learned of a plot against the two of them by members of a political network that had been dealing influence throughout the state for decades. The powerbrokers were said to be indignant over a lucrative arrangement between Scruggs and Moore that enabled Scruggs, a private lawyer in the Gulf Coast city of Pascagoula, to collect $6 million in contingency fees while representing the state as a “special assistant attorney general” in legal actions against the asbestos industry.
Scruggs and Moore, regarded by the old guard as upstarts, had succeeded after a similar plan by members of the network had failed a few years earlier because of a shortfall in state revenue. Among the members of the cabal, Moore told Scruggs, were State Auditor Steve Patterson and Ed Peters, the Hinds County district attorney with jurisdiction in Jackson, the state capital. These men and their allies not only were disgruntled over Moore’s contract with Scruggs; they had determined it was illegal and planned to indict Scruggs—a move that would also serve to short-circuit Moore’s climb to political prominence.
Despite his emergence as a leader in asbestos litigation and his alliance with the attorney general, Scruggs was still naïve in the practiceof backroom politics in Mississippi. When he heard that he was likely to be indicted, fear ran through him like a fever. His head throbbed at the outrageousness of the accusation, and despair gnawed at his gut.
He found himself frightened and unsure where to turn.
Scruggs knew that he faced formidable forces representing an amalgamation of old Democrats and new Republicans, the survivors and descendants of a mighty political apparatus once controlled by the late senator James O. Eastland. Working the phone, he reached out to other sources for help.
As a major donor to the state Democratic Party, Scruggs made a late night call to Jackson attorney Danny Cupit, an operative with broad connections in party affairs. “They’re out to get me,” Scruggs wailed, blaming his dilemma on hostile politicians and professing his innocence. To Cupit, it sounded as though Scruggs was weeping. He offered to make some calls on Scruggs’s behalf.
Instinctively, Scruggs also phoned his brother-in-law in Washington, Republican senator Trent Lott. The lawmaker listened while Scruggs complained about the perfi dy of the charges being prepared against him. Lott made no promises—for this seemed to be the work of squabbling Democrats back home—but he assured Scruggs he would do what he could.
Others provided counsel—recommendations of good criminal defense lawyers and expressions of support—yet Scruggs remained uncomfortable. And lately he had grown accustomed to comfort. He had recently become a man of consequence in Mississippi, even before his fortieth birthday, when he hit a big lick—as lawyers like to call any sizable fees won in damage suits. With his new wealth, Scruggs had bought a sailboat, a luxury car, an airplane, a home with a view of the gulf, and he had begun to use his money to dabble in politics.
Scruggs seemed driven by a lust to become a winner, a characteristic often developed in childhood by smart but poor boys, and now he had to consider that the life he had built for himself and his family might be wiped out. An indictment could prove him unworthy for his wife, Diane, a local beauty who had been considered too regal for him when they were in high school. Criminal charges against Scruggs would also besmirch his son, Zach, on the threshold of his freshman year at Ole Miss, and the Scruggses’ younger, adopted daughter, Claire.
Scruggs’s downfall appeared to be coming at almost the same warp speed as his rise in the legal profession.
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After treading in the backwaters of the state bar as a young lawyer specializing in bankruptcies, Scruggs had a breakthrough in the 1980s, after he devised an innovative way to attract a multitude of clients claiming to suffer from exposure to asbestos. In Pascagoula, the shipbuilding city where he lived, asbestos litigation had become something of a local industry itself. Thousands of workers had passed through the giant Ingalls Shipbuilding facility since World War II, producing countless vessels that helped keep the U.S. Navy afloat. Over the years, the work force at Ingalls had used asbestos to wrap the pipes, reinforce the boilers, and protect the engines of the ships they built. Eventually, it began to dawn on some of them that their jobs had come at a price: inordinate numbers of the shipyard workers were succumbing to mesothelioma, an illness that could be traced directly to handling asbestos.
Scruggs missed out on the fi rst wave of damage suits fi led in Mississippi in the 1970s in connection with asbestos. But after setting up a clinic in 1985 that provided free medical diagnoses for those who felt they might have contracted mesothelioma, he was able to enlist hundreds of clients. Then he fi gured out a way to consolidate these cases into one blockbuster lawsuit so ominous that the asbestos companies were willing to pay millions in settlements negotiated outside the courtroom in order to avoid the possibility of even greater losses in a trial.
By 1992, Scruggs stood out as a paradigm in his profession, a plaintiff’s lawyer representing the powerless masses, whether they were humble shipyard workers in Pascagoula or ailing consumers bringing product liability complaints. Scruggs and his colleagues around the country called themselves “trial lawyers,” and they thought of themselves as the new guardians of the American public, stepping into a vacuum created by a lack of government regulation. During twelve years of Republican rule in Washington, a time when Big Government had been turned into anathema, the teeth had been pulled from regulatory agencies. Big Business had been given an advantage, and it seemed that the only place to hold industry accountable was in the courts.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the trial lawyers waged legal assaults on asbestos and tobacco, defective autos and dangerous chemicals, against careless physicians and deadly medications. In many cases, they won astronomical awards. They also earned a legion of enemies: boosters from chambers of commerce, rival corporate defense attorneys, Republicans protective of business interests, prosecutors suspecting legal malfeasance, even ordinary citizens simply appalled by the size of the judgments. But along the way, men like Scruggs became as rich as the captains of Fortune 500 companies.