Ronald L. Motley, nationally known plaintiff's attorney who spearheaded historic litigation against tobacco companies for liability in health-related costs of smokers in 1999. He died Aug. 22 in South Carolina. He was 68. (Reuters)

Ronald L. Motley, a South Carolina lawyer who spearheaded lawsuits against tobacco companies that led them to agree to pay $246 billion in the biggest civil settlement in U.S. history, died Aug. 22 in Charleston, S.C. He was 68.

Don Migliori, a partner in his law firm, confirmed the death and said the cause was complications from organ failure.

Mr. Motley pioneered the development of mass-tort litigation in the 1990s to sue tobacco companies such as Altria Group’s Philip Morris unit and companies that sold asbestos-laden building products, such as Johns Manville Corp. He recovered billions of dollars for workers and consumers who blamed the manufacturers’ products for their illnesses.

“Ron Motley changed the playing field for individuals seeking to hold companies accountable in this country,” said Richard Harpootlian, a Columbia, S.C.-based plaintiff lawyer.

The son of a gas-station owner in North Charleston, S.C., Mr. Motley became one of the most feared plaintiff lawyers in the United States. He could be seen striding across courtrooms in his “lucky” ostrich-skin boots and often used props to entertain jurors and annoy opponents.

As part of the tobacco industry settlement, in which companies agreed to make payments to states to resolve claims that cigarettes caused public-health dangers, Mr. Motley’s firm was guaranteed at least $1 billion in legal fees, the New York Times reported in 1998.

William S. Ohlemeyer, a former in-house lawyer for Philip Morris, who tried a tobacco case against Mr. Motley in Indiana, said he was a formidable opponent.

“It was impressive to watch him operate in the courtroom,” Ohlemeyer, now a partner at the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said in an interview. “He was a spectacular trial lawyer who worked hard for his clients.”

Filmmakers hired actor Bruce McGill to portray Mr. Motley in the movie “The Insider,” an account of tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand’s decision to blow the whistle on the tobacco industry’s knowledge about nicotine’s addictiveness. The film starred Russell Crowe as Wigand and Al Pacino as a TV journalist who covered Wigand’s story.

Mr. Motley started his career as an assistant prosecutor in Greenwood, S.C. In the mid-1970s, he made a name for himself by filing the first suits against Manville and other companies that sold products such as insulation containing asbestos. Studies have shown that the material can cause cancer and lung problems.

Mr. Motley and his law firm, Motley Rice, recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for workers injured by exposure to asbestos, said Jack McConnell, one of his former partners who is now a federal judge in Providence, R.I. McConnell tried asbestos and other cases with Mr. Motley for 25 years before joining the bench.

“He could take very complicated liability evidence from the corporation’s own files and explain it to lay jurors in a simple and straightforward fashion,” McConnell said.

For Mr. Motley, representing smokers who developed lung cancer was a personal matter, McConnell said. Mr. Motley’s mother was an ex-smoker who died of the disease in 1984.

“Ron said on many occasions that he was out to avenge his mother’s death from tobacco through the litigation,” McConnell said.

To make his case, Motley sometimes turned to unusual courtroom props. In an asbestos case in Baltimore, Mr. Motley donned a white lab coat and used a toy doctor’s kit as part of his cross-examination of a company’s medical expert, McConnell said. During closing arguments in that case, Mr. Motley used a squirt gun to spray a defense exhibit.

Defense attorneys for asbestos makers called him “the man who took down Manville,’” McConnell said. The company, now owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, sought bankruptcy protection in 1982 because of billions of dollars in asbestos liability.

Mr. Motley’s lifestyle reflected his success. He owned a mansion on Kiawah Island off the coast of Charleston, a $15 million yacht named Themis for the Greek goddess representing justice, and a pair of golden retrievers named Chrysotile and Amosite, after kinds of asbestos. In 1999, the lawyer hired the soul group Earth, Wind & Fire to perform at what was then his third wedding.

Mr. Motley’s hard-drinking lifestyle was documented in books, including “Civil Warriors,” by Dan Zegart.

Ronald Lee Motley was born Oct. 21, 1944, in Charleston. He was a 1966 graduate of the University of South Carolina and a 1971 graduate of its law school. After serving as a prosecutor, he joined the law firm of Solomon Blatt Jr., a state legislator, in Barnwell, S.C. Motley began taking asbestos claims from workers at the nearby Charleston Naval Shipyard while at the firm.

Survivors include his wife, Stephanie, and a daughter. His son, Mark, died in 2000.

— Bloomberg News

Phil Milford and Michael Bathon in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.