NEW YORK — 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 US history, has died.
He died Thursday at Roper Hospital in Charleston, S.C., at 68, Don Migliori, a partner in his law firm, said in an interview. The cause was complications of organ failure, he said.
Mr. Motley pioneered the development of mass tort litigation to sue tobacco makers in the 1990s, such as Altria Group Inc.’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 plaintiffs’ lawyer who had known Mr. Motley for 38 years. ‘‘He may well have been the best trial lawyer of his generation.’’
The son of a gas station owner in North Charleston, S.C., Mr. Motley became one of the country’s most feared plaintiff lawyers. 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 US 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 Phillip Morris who tried a case against Mr. Motley in Indiana, said he was a formidable opponent.
‘‘It was impressive to watch him operate,’’ Ohlemeyer 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 television journalist who covered Wigand’s story.
Motley started his career as an assistant prosecutor in Greenwood, S.C. In the mid-1970s, he made a name by filing the first suits against Manville and other companies that sold products such as insulation containing asbestos. Studies have shown the material can cause cancer.
Mr. Motley and his law firm, Motley Rice, have recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for workers injured by exposure to asbestos, said Jack McConnell, a former partner who is now a US judge in Providence. McConnell tried asbestos and other cases with Mr. Motley 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,’’ he said. ‘‘He despised it when people were hurt through corporate misconduct.’’
To make his case, the raven-haired Mr. Motley sometimes turned to unusual courtroom props. In an asbestos case in Baltimore, he 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.
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 Inc., sought bankruptcy protection in 1982 because of billions of dollars in asbestos liability.
Mr. Motley’s lifestyle reflected his success. He owned a mansion 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 different kinds of asbestos. In 1999, the lawyer hired Earth, Wind & Fire to perform at his third wedding.
Ronald Lee Motley was born in Charleston. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from the University of South Carolina and, in 1971, a law degree.
He leaves his wife, Stephanie; and daughter, Jennifer Motley Lee. His son, Mark, died in 2000.