Eager to Face Any Jury and the Voters
Edwards Shows the Traits That Made Him a Feared Litigator
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2004; Page A01
RALEIGH, N.C. -- From rural courthouses with Confederate memorials out front to the vast judicial complex in this New South capital, lawyers across North Carolina had the same rule of thumb for going up against their colleague John Edwards: Never let him near a jury.
"The problem was that all the older women wanted to take him home as their son, and all the younger ones wanted to go out with him," rued an attorney for several doctors sued by Edwards on behalf of brain-damaged babies. "You'd think, 'Okay, if the women like him, the men must hate him.' But then the guys just saw him as one of them."
Edwards's appeal as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination may have jolted the pundits -- given a political résumé that begins and ends with five years in the U.S. Senate -- but it was no surprise to hundreds of doctors, trucking company officials and manufacturers who had faced him in court. In barely 15 years, beginning at age 31, he won more than $175 million in settlements and verdicts -- $3.7 million for an alcoholic permanently disabled by an overdose of the drug Antabuse; $6.5 million for a 4-year-old boy whose parents were crushed by a speeding tractor-trailer; $25 million for a 5-year-old girl who lost most of her intestines when she sat atop an unprotected wading-pool drain. Based on data kept by North Carolina Lawyers' Weekly, no other trial lawyer in the state came close.
His strengths as a campaigner were all there, they say now -- the easy-listening oratory that makes everything sound simple, the common touch, the steely self-assurance swaddled in Southern respectfulness, the driving ambition.
Adversaries as well as partners said he routinely out-prepared and outperformed them. But his biggest distinction was what more than one called an "unnerving" appetite for putting his case before a jury, even though most victories -- his included -- came in settlements, not trials. Knowing his record -- of about 70 trials over 15 years, defense and plaintiffs lawyers said he lost only two or three -- defendants offered hefty settlements to avoid a showdown.
That trait also has a parallel in Edwards the campaigner. " 'Let me put my case to the jury,' 'Let me debate George Bush.' It's exactly the same thing," said Dan McLamb, a malpractice defense lawyer who is a close friend of Edwards.
Edwards now speaks almost interchangeably of jurors and voters. "I trusted them because of the way I grew up, with ordinary Americans," he said of juries in an interview Friday, much as he often mentions his son-of-a-mill-worker origins to voters.
Another link between Edwards's law career and his candidacy is that the law made him fantastically wealthy. He spent $6 million of his own money in 1998, when he defeated Republican Lauch Faircloth to win his Senate seat. Contributions from wealthy trial lawyers dominate his presidential fundraising. His financial disclosure statement puts his assets between $8.7 million and $36.5 million, largely from fees of 25 percent to 40 percent on verdicts and settlements. (Plaintiffs' lawyers typically take cases for no charge up front, and are paid only if the client wins. Edwards said he took no fee in some hardship cases.)
Peter Gentling, a now-retired Asheville surgeon, vividly remembers a frantic call from his malpractice insurance agent 10 years ago, informing him that Edwards was representing a double-mastectomy patient of Gentling who, it turned out, had not had cancer. Gentling acknowledged that he made a mistake -- he had acted on a test less reliable than a biopsy -- but said he had felt certain that a jury would understand why he did so.
"She [the agent] just said that with this guy on the case and given how smart he is, it would turn out very badly for me and we better settle, and settle right away," Gentling said. He did -- for $850,000. That year, Edwards also won more than $12 million in settlements and verdicts for brain-damaged and stillborn babies, victims of catastrophic truck accidents or job injuries and people who had massive heart attacks after symptoms went undiagnosed.
Reputation and Referrals Grow
As his reputation grew, small-town lawyers who once settled malpractice cases for small amounts began referring them to Edwards, who by the 1990s was turning down 50 referrals for every one he accepted, according to David Kirby, his law partner from 1993 to 1998. Edwards did not advertise or solicit cases. David Sousa, an attorney for Medical Mutual Insurance Co., the state's biggest malpractice insurer, said that Edwards's cases accounted for $120 million of the $448 million in malpractice verdicts and settlements reported in North Carolina Lawyers' Weekly in the 1990s.
Sousa said plaintiffs' lawyers regularly threatened -- in writing -- to call in Edwards if Medical Mutual did not settle for as much as they wanted. Sousa said he assumed many were bluffing, but still is not sure. "A case was worth what it was worth," Sousa said, "but you tended to look a little more carefully if John was going to be involved."
Of 50 of Edwards's cases catalogued in North Carolina Lawyers' Weekly's annual lists of major verdicts and settlements, about one-third involved babies born with brain damage, which Edwards blamed on malpractice during delivery. About one-fourth involved people permanently disabled and disfigured in tractor-trailer accidents. In his book, "Four Trials," and in his campaign, Edwards portrays these cases as battles for ordinary people catastrophically injured by medical and corporate negligence.
Sandy Lakey -- whose 5-year-old daughter Valerie had three-fourths of her intestines sucked out when she sat on an unprotected wading pool drain -- said she and her husband, David, interviewed multiple lawyers, and Edwards was her clear choice. After five months at their daughter's hospital bedside, Sandy Lakey said, "He made me feel he was taking the burden off us." Equally important, the Lakeys said, was Edwards's readiness to go to trial. "The other lawyers wanted to settle, and we also preferred not to go to court," Sandy Lakey said. "The case John made was that if this did have to go to trial, he and David [Kirby, his partner] were ready."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, center, hugs a member of the congregation at Bible Way Church yesterday in Columbia, S.C.
(Ellen Ozier -- Reuters)