Eager to Face Any Jury and the Voters
Edwards won his biggest verdict on Valerie's behalf -- $25 million -- against the manufacturer of the pool drain cover, which had snapped off before Valerie sat on it. Edwards showed that the manufacturer knew the cover was faulty, and had quietly settled a dozen similar evisceration cases. Valerie needed 12 surgeries, and faces a lifetime of costly medical problems, including frequent infections from a catheter that pumps nutrition into her bloodstream 12 hours a day. Her parents said the money was calculated to cover a lifetime of potentially catastrophic medical expenses for their daughter, who is now 16.
But cases involving lifetime medical care are also highly remunerative. Although Edwards did not participate in mass torts -- which have generated hundred-million-dollar fortunes for some trial lawyers -- his verdicts and settlements averaged more than $15 million a year in the 1990s, according to reports in North Carolina Lawyers' Weekly. "He's campaigning as one of the common folks -- that's the kind of thing he played on in my trial," said an obstetrician who asked to remain anonymous. "But he's no poor man by any means, thanks to a lot of us."
All this would seem to make Edwards an easy mark for President Bush, who portrays trial lawyers as the health care system's Public Enemy No. 1. Bush flew to North Carolina in 2002 to make a major speech for tort reform, accusing plaintiffs' lawyers of enriching themselves through frivolous lawsuits while everyone pays higher costs and good doctors close their practices, crushed by rising malpractice premiums.
Indeed, Bush's then-press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was quoted as gloating, "Bring on the ambulance-chaser," when Edwards began his presidential race. Faircloth had tarred Edwards as a sleazy lawyer in 1998, but drew the wrath of the state bar association, which did not appreciate the implication. The tactic suggested that while the GOP has made hay attacking trial lawyers generally, it can be perilous to attack one individually because this implies an attack on his clients.
One complicated example was Bailey Griffin, born severely brain damaged to a young chicken farmer, Christopher, and his wife, Ashea. A Charlotte jury found the obstetrician negligent and awarded the Griffins $23 million based on arguments by Edwards's expert that Bailey would live 40 years, requiring total care. However, Bailey died at age 6. The Bush administration highlighted the award in a 2002 report denouncing what it called "the litigation lottery." Christopher Griffin responded at the time that he did not feel like a lottery winner. "Every time I go to my daughter's grave, it's hard to feel that way," he told reporters.
The case remains a rallying point of doctors and insurance executives demanding tort reform in North Carolina. It was the biggest medical malpractice verdict in the state's history, and Sousa cites it in saying he holds Edwards almost "single-handedly" responsible for sharply rising malpractice insurance costs there. But figures collected by the Insurance Information Institute show that insurance payments to plaintiffs statewide were $112.4 million when Edwards tried his last case, in 1997, and $140.5 million five years later, in 2002.
Even some leading defense attorneys say Edwards's cases are difficult to blame for the state's problems. In 1993, he and David Kirby opened Edwards & Kirby, specializing in catastrophic injury cases. Kirby said the firm hired teams of malpractice experts to screen cases for merit. He said cases also had to involve a responsible party with enough assets to pay large damages. Neil Vidmar, a law professor at Duke University who testifies to state legislatures as an expert witness on malpractice, said the damages they won reflected the cost of caring for catastrophic injuries.
"At the end, when they filed a case, you knew someone was in trouble," said James Cooney, a malpractice defense lawyer in Charlotte. "It might not be your client, but it'd be one of the other defendants."
Edwards's quest for the presidency after five years in public office echoes his beginnings as a lawyer in Raleigh. He arrived at age 28 with what Wade Smith, founding partner of Tharrington, Smith, described as "unnerving, scary" self-assurance. The respected firm hired him to develop a civil litigation division. Robert Clay, a leading malpractice defense lawyer, said his firm passed on Edwards for the same reason: "Some partners thought he was so aggressive he would've wanted to own the firm in a couple of months."
Within three years Edwards won his first multimillion-dollar verdict -- the $3.7 million Antabuse case, then one of the state's largest personal-injury awards. Smith said the case was referred by a lawyer who was about to settle it for $20,000, assuming no jury would find for an alcoholic over a doctor. "I saw a quality in John -- you don't see him coming," Smith said.
That would seem to parallel Edwards's surprise second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, after months at the back of the pack.
His stump speech about "two Americas," one for the privileged and one for "everyone else," reminds former colleagues of closing arguments famous for turning medical complexities into human narratives. "You never walked away and said, 'That was the most brilliant speech I ever heard.' It was just something everyone could understand," said one defense attorney.
Retired Wake County Superior Court judge Robert Farmer, who presided over the Lakey case, recalled that "all the lawyers in Raleigh" came to watch Edwards's closing argument, packing his courtroom to overflowing, much as voters packed Edwards's New Hampshire appearances to take in his "Two Americas" speech. "He argued for an hour and a half," Farmer remembered. "He never used one single piece of paper. He never said, 'Uh.' I watched the jury, all 12 and the alternates. They had their eyes totally focused on him."
After finishing fourth in New Hampshire, Edwards acknowledged that his candidacy likely will not survive if he fails to win Tuesday's primary in his native South Carolina. With polls showing him virtually tied there with front-runner Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), his future appears in question. But Clay, who witnessed similar scenarios in courtrooms across North Carolina, had a different take: "My advice would be: Watch him."
Researcher Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.
© 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)