The Running Mate
To Many, Edwards Is Defined by Work Ethic, Family
A Record-Setting Trial Lawyer, He Rebounded from Personal Tragedy to Enter Politics
By Lois Romano and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page A21
CHARLOTTE -- The spectators in the packed courtroom that hot September day in 1997 had come to watch the final act in an extraordinary legal career. But in ways that went unstated, they ended up bearing witness to two painful personal dramas, the lawyer's and the client's.
The case of little Bailey Griffin, maimed at birth because an obstetrician waited too long to bring her into the world, was John Edwards's last as a lawyer, and it crystallized major themes of his life and career.
There was the hell-bent work ethic that propelled him out of working-class beginnings, the natural affinity for the weak against the strong, the transcendent connection with jurors -- qualities that later would catapult him from freshman senator to the Democratic vice presidential nomination he is to accept Wednesday night. There also was a record verdict for Bailey, which doctors and insurers -- and ultimately President Bush -- decried as part of the problem, not a solution, for the health care needs of ordinary Americans.
But on that day, there was just Edwards before the jury, trying to win a family devastated by tragedy the means to move on. At the time, Edwards and his own devastated family were also trying to move on from tragedy. Barely a year earlier, his 16-year-old son, Wade, had died in a freak automobile accident. A month before Bailey's trial began, Edwards announced he would run for the U.S. Senate. His wife, Elizabeth, at 48, stopped practicing law and the next year gave birth to a baby girl, to be followed soon by a son, reinventing a family left with one child, Cate, who was 14 when Wade died.
As Edwards moved to the front of the courtroom, several people who were there recall, spectators and jurors did not whisper or daydream. They leaned forward as he spoke without notes, as though the words came from somewhere deep inside. Edwards focused the jury on what it would take to care for Bailey for decades -- a child who, at age 3, could not sit up, was fed through a tube to her stomach and rasped with every breath, sending echoes through her young parents' home. Jurors had seen the oversize infant with vacant eyes during the trial.
You saw Bailey on her mother's lap, he reminded the jurors. But, he asked dramatically, on whose lap would she sit when she is 45 years old? Who will care for her when her parents are old and cannot cuddle her?
The defense attorney said he knew in that instant, with that powerful image, that Edwards had reached the jury. In less than five hours, the jury found the doctor responsible for Bailey's birth injuries, and awarded her $23.5 million, calculated to cover a lifetime of catastrophic care -- a record malpractice judgment in North Carolina.
There was no celebration that night, no champagne or backslapping. Ashea and Chris Griffin rushed home to care for their daughter. John Edwards went home, too, to prepare for a new journey -- one that would give new meaning to his life as well as his son's death.
A Reputation for Winning
When the Griffins sought out John Edwards in 1995, he was at the pinnacle of his profession and they were at the end of their rope. The 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father -- a chicken farmer in rural North Carolina -- had exhausted their resources caring for the pale, fragile, brain-damaged baby they brought home from the hospital a year earlier. Bailey needed thousands of dollars of medicine a month.
Nearly blind, Bailey was unable to eat, sit up or talk. Ashea Griffin was on duty around the clock, feeding Bailey through a tube and suctioning saliva from her mouth so she could breathe. Ashea was relieved a few times a week by therapists that Medicaid paid for. Then one day, a therapist let slip that a note in Bailey's hospital file suggested concern about malpractice.
The Griffins found their way to Edwards as had hundreds of other families. "Actually, we just heard he was one of the best around," Ashea Griffin said. Edwards, then 42, had returned to his home state about 15 years earlier to practice law, rapidly becoming its premiere malpractice and personal injury lawyer through a series of landmark verdicts.
According to North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, Edwards won more than $175 million in verdicts and settlements in 15 years. But he was not an easy villain for malpractice insurers and doctors. While they found plenty to criticize in what he cost them, few faulted his professionalism. "There were never ethical questions, never any dirty tricks," said David Sousa, general counsel of Medical Mutual Insurance Co., the state's largest malpractice insurer.
Sousa believes, however, that Edwards single-handedly made medical care more expensive in North Carolina. "He raised the bar on these settlements and verdicts," he said. "He's so much more gifted than the others, clearly it wouldn't have happened as fast if not for John. . . . He's the primary driver."
Edwards has a very different view of his work. He portrays his clients as ordinary people whose lives were shattered by corporate or medical negligence -- people whose health care expenses otherwise would have made them wards of the state. Their "lives had been altered completely -- completely and forever -- and they just sought something that could bring it back and make it good again," he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, "Four Trials."
As Edwards's success became well known, small-town lawyers who once settled malpractice cases for small amounts began referring them to him instead, and splitting the fee. In 1993, he and law school friend David Kirby opened a practice specializing in catastrophic injury cases. Kirby said they turned down 50 cases for every one they accepted -- using teams of doctors and nurses to select cases of clear negligence and serious injuries, involving defendants whose pockets were deep enough to cover huge medical expenses.
The Griffins made the cut, and Edwards won their loyalty in the first encounter.
"He was wonderful with Bailey," Ashea said. "She had trouble breathing, and she always had saliva coming out of her mouth because she couldn't swallow." While many people recoiled at Bailey, she said that "he picked her up in his arms, never stood back."
The Griffins saw Edwards -- as did juries, and later voters -- as one of them. Besides a withering work ethic and a talent for weaving mind-numbing medical and technical information into an easily understandable story, this was a key to Edwards's success. "Coming from a small town, he could talk to the bank president and the millworker, and be completely at ease," Kirby said. "People used to say, 'Don't get above your raisin', ' and John never did."
Edwards's father, Wallace, a millworker who never went to college, encouraged John to major in textiles at North Carolina State, in case his dream of law school didn't materialize. Later, Edwards would talk about seeing his father try to better himself by watching educational television -- only to see college graduates promoted ahead of him. Don't let that happen to you, he told his son. And the son listened -- graduating college in three years at the top of his class, arriving at the University of North Carolina Law School, the only place he ever felt outclassed.
"These were not mill kids: They were the sons and daughters of urban professionals," he wrote in "Four Trials." "For the first time in my life, I felt out of place and I frankly wondered if I was up to the task."
But he hid his doubts from classmate Elizabeth Anania, whom he married when they graduated.
"I never, ever sensed that," she said in an interview, crediting the whatever-it-takes determination Edwards learned from his father. Edwards was among the top 10 students in the class at graduation.
By the time Edwards arrived in Raleigh at age 28, his confidence was downright "unnerving," remembered Wade Smith, a founding partner of Tharrington, Smith, who hired him to lead civil litigation. Kirby remembers Edwards coming into his own almost overnight.
"He'd call and say, 'Hey, Kirby. You're not gonna believe this. I got a $75,000 verdict,' " Kirby said. "A few months later, he called and said, 'Guess what, you're not gonna believe this: I got a $150,000 verdict.' Then I got this call in 1984. He's screaming and real excited -- 'I just got a $3.7 million verdict!' " It was Edwards's breakthrough case. His client, an alcoholic, had been given an overdose of the drug Antabuse and had suffered brain damage while in a hospital for detox. It was unheard of at the time for a jury to rule in favor of an alcoholic over a doctor.
A Family's Loss
As Easter 1996 approached, Edwards was working with the Griffins, assembling evidence that Bailey's cerebral palsy resulted from negligence by Ashea's obstetrician -- not genetic factors, as the doctor argued. He said the doctor fractured Bailey's skull during an attempted vaginal delivery, and unnecessarily deprived her of oxygen by delaying a Caesarean section.
Edwards left on the Thursday before Easter, happily anticipating a weekend with his family at their beach house on the North Carolina coast. That weekend Edwards's life was altered "completely and forever," as he had written once of his clients.
Wade Edwards's Jeep Cherokee overturned on Interstate 40 when a wind gust pulled him toward the median and he swerved right to compensate. He died instantly, pinned in the car.
Edwards stopped working for close to six months, and when friends saw him, he was often wearing Wade's clothing and carrying a framed picture of his son as a young boy. Elizabeth Edwards -- who until that time had used her maiden name -- changed her name to Edwards so she would have the same name as her son. She also stopped working, and the couple devoted themselves to keeping Wade's memory alive through a foundation.
"To say it was devastating is to understate it. . . . You can't even imagine," said Bonnie Weyher, a law school friend of the couple.
The Griffins said they were warned that Edwards might not try their case, but then suddenly, he was back. He had, those close to him say, made a decision to try to seize control of his destiny again. First, he would try to fight for clients who needed him. He began with Valerie Lakey, a girl who barely survived after being disemboweled at age 5 when she sat on a defective drain in a wading pool. He won the biggest product liability verdict in state history -- $25 million.
"It was very therapeutic for John to fight" for Valerie, Elizabeth Edwards said. "People say it was his biggest case in terms of the judgment -- but I think it was his biggest case in terms of what it meant to him."
But there was more. Wade Edwards had loved government and history, and often had asked his father to run for office. Edwards himself had thought of a political career as early as law school. Now he began talking of running for the Senate. And he and Elizabeth decided they wanted more children. Friends remember the wonder on Elizabeth's and John's faces when they announced that Elizabeth, at 48, was pregnant.
"Out of the ashes came this new direction," Wade Smith said.
Edwards wanted to finish the Griffin case, and Elizabeth and Cate encouraged him to do so. "It was better for him if we just sort of backed off and let him do what he needed to do," Elizabeth said. "He sort of belonged to their family for a while."
Over lunch one day at Green's, where Edwards and the Griffins ate every day during trial, he told them he was going to run for the Senate, and asked what they thought of the idea. "I said, 'Why don't you become a judge?' " Ashea recalled. "He made the comment to me, 'Why do want to sit on the bench when you can play?' " Edwards presented expert testimony that Bailey would live at least 40 years, and her lifetime care would cost as much as $25 million. The jury returned with the largest malpractice verdict in state history.
But instead of living to 40, Bailey died three years after her parents received millions of dollars in a settlement with the doctor's insurance company. (They are bound by its terms not to reveal the amount.) Trial lawyers defend the outcome as inevitable in a flawed system, in which many injured plaintiffs end up with less than they need. The Bush administration listed the case in a white paper on what it called the "litigation lottery," when the president held a news conference in North Carolina in 2002 calling for tort reform.
Sitting in the living room of their new house, in Waxhaw, near Charlotte, bought with the proceeds of the settlement, the Griffins concede they are financially better off, living with three children in a new house with a pool. But they said they are hurt by Bush's characterization of them as lottery winners, particularly since they are Christian conservatives who voted for him. "It's very difficult to feel like you've won a prize when you go every week to your daughter's grave," Chris Griffin said.
It is much the same for Edwards, who Wednesday is to claim the second-biggest prize in his party. It will mark the culmination of a remarkable journey, from modest beginnings to the top of the legal profession, to the emotional depths and now the political heights. Edwards went to Raleigh on Tuesday before flying to Boston. His last stop was to visit the grave of his son.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company