Lawyers as Heroes
Thirty years ago our organization was led by a man who believed in giving back to society, believed in the rights of consumers, and believed in making our world a better, safer place for everyone. Also 30 years ago, trial lawyers began a quiet but relentless pursuit of truth, bringing lawsuits against tobacco companies for the countless deaths caused by cigarettes. The life of this Great Man who served our organization and the havoc caused by the tobacco industry have a common thread -- for this man was addicted to the product which the tobacco industry sold. This is his story.
The Great Man was born the eldest of six children and the son of a traveling shoe salesman. He was brought up in a family that did not have a lot, but cherished what they did have, which was their love for each other. He worked hard as a teenager to help support his family, taking on any manual labor available at the time. That included rising at dawn to work at an ice plant, where handling the ice and brine permanently calloused his hands. It included breaking and lifting massive loads of Carthage marble at a quarry. Despite all of the hours he spent working, he never let his school work slip. He was a gifted public speaker. He traveled the country participating in speech and debate tournaments and, although they did not have a lot of money, his father and mother never missed a tournament. It was through these endeavors that he began to foster his love for the law.
He also possessed a strong love and devotion for his country. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for World War II service with the Army Air Corps. He acted as a test pilot and was designated as group officer while flying, training and supervising the activities and the duties of 300 cadets. Although he ranked at the top of his class as a fighter pilot, he was shipped out to be a B-24 bomber pilot, for they were in demand. He flew over 29 combat missions in the European Theater over Germany and France, totaling 250 combat hours as squadron lead. He came perilously close to death on one mission when an 88 millimeter enemy shell penetrated the wing of his aircraft.
Fortunately, it failed to explode. After cessation of hostilities in the European Theater, he volunteered to fly damaged U.S. bombers from the Continent back to England, often at tree top level and at great personal risk. He was highly decorated for his dedication and courage. While overseas he completed courses in law, economics, and business, as well as served as a labor relations and personnel officer.
Also while he was overseas, another important event occurred in this Great Man's life ... he was provided his first cigarette, courtesy of the American tobacco industry. He had never smoked before, nor had he had a desire to do so. However, with the great stress and strain brought on by the war, and the free cigarettes provided by the tobacco industry, smoking became a way of life for the legions of officers and enlisted men. Unfortunately, this one event forever changed the course of his life.
During the war he sent his GI money to his parents and to his younger sister to put her through college. When he came back, he began working his way through law school at the University of Missouri, where he met the woman who won his heart. They settled down in a small town in Missouri and had five children, all girls. Before his fourth child was born, he had already suffered his first heart attack. Eventually, he would survive two.
He was fortunate in that he loved his life's work, helping people. He worked every day of his life in a small town law practice to make life better for everyone he touched, sometimes without great financial reward, but always with great spiritual solace. Later his family would learn of the numerous letters of thanks he had received for the help and assistance that he had given to people without ever taking a dime, and the countless hours he had worked without ever collecting a bill.
With a gentle hand and loving voice, he and his wife raised their five daughters in the belief that with their lives they could do great things and that those great things should always include helping and caring for those in need. He would engage in long conversations about philosophy, issues of the day, and world and national politics. He did not confine his life's work to the small town in which he lived, but lent his talents to the office of Prosecuting Attorney, to the university from which he graduated, to the State Legislature, and ultimately to the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. He brought his daughters up attending MATA conventions where they met the families of other lawyers who cared and believed in helping those less fortunate.
Despite his many and varied successes both personally and professionally, one thing always loomed overhead -- his great addiction to cigarettes. He tried to quit several times, but never succeeded. Medically, he tried everything: the Mayo Clinic, acupuncture, noted hospitals throughout the country. Nothing worked. Smoking became such a prevalent part of his life that he would wake up in the middle of the night just to have a cigarette. Finally, at the age of 52, he stopped smoking, long after his diagnosis of emphysema, and only then because he could not breathe and smoke at the same time. Later he would have dreams of smoking and would wake up in the middle of the night angry with himself, thinking he had done so.
During these decades of his life, trial lawyers had taken on the tobacco industry with very little luck. Even though we knew in our gut that the tobacco companies had engaged in some kind of campaign to deceive the American people, victories were few and far between. We knew the information was there to prove what we knew in our hearts. We just could not get to it. We simply could not convince courts to force the industry to produce these documents -- and when they were ordered to be produced, we have now found that they had been hidden behind the guise of attorney/client privilege or destroyed.
For this same period of time, the tobacco industry denied marketing their products to children, denied that nicotine was addictive, and denied that their products caused disease and early death. Unfortunately, there was a very Great Man in the trenches experiencing everything that the companies were denying.
In the spring of 1983, when all the flowers began to bloom and the earth began to sing again, this Great Man spent three months in intensive care. He never went home. His fourth daughter, who had worked side by side with him for many years, was in law school when the call came that her father had been hospitalized and it looked like he wasn't going to make it. Hospitalization of her father was nothing new to her for it had occurred many times before. What was new was the grave tone in the doctor's voice. She remembers vividly the night after they performed the tracheotomy on her father just so he could breathe. He mouthed words to her, for he knew she would understand, "How can I be a lawyer if I cannot speak?" Tears rolled down his cheeks. It was the first time she had ever seen her father cry. It was also the first time that she had felt that he desperately needed something from her -- reassurance that he could continue in their chosen profession, continue to give of himself to help other people.
He slipped into a coma during her law school finals. He was 62 years old. The doctors said that all that had kept him alive for the last ten years was his love for his family and his will to live, because he had no lungs left. After all of his daughters arrived from all over the country he miraculously awoke from his coma one last time. He told his beloved wife and each one of his daughters that he loved them and gave them each a kiss good-bye. Then he slipped silently into the night.
Ten years later his daughters watched the newsclips of the tobacco company CEOs, with their right hands raised, testifying before a congressional committee that nicotine was not addictive. But they knew the truth. They had followed the stories of the tobacco companies and lawsuits and elected officials who never seemed willing to face the deadly nature of this addictive drug. It seemed the tobacco companies were invincible; using the power of their wealth, connections and cleverness to hide their sordid secrets. They watched as those individuals whose lives had been destroyed by the creative marketing of the tobacco industry were rejected by misinformed judges and juries. The daughters understood too well the plight of those who could not kick the smoking habit created by nicotine which had taken control of their bodies and their minds. They understood the heartache and pain inflicted upon the families of these victims.
Trial lawyers throughout this country also understood. Trial lawyers, and no one else, championed this cause. Trial lawyers, and no one else, hammered away at the tobacco industry -- uninhibited by their wealth and connections and cleverness. Trial lawyers, persevering through decades of fruitless pursuit, have brought the tobacco industry to its day of reckoning.
Throughout this country, state attorneys general, lawyers themselves, have taken up the fight against these tobacco giants. Because of the unprecedented risk, expense, and complexity of these lawsuits, they could not do it alone. They requested and received the assistance of trial lawyers. There was no attorney general in any state in the position to commit to the staggering cost of waging war with the wealthy tobacco industry when the associated risk was so substantial. Through the resources, expertise, and courage of trial lawyers, we now have documents supporting what we have known in our hearts to be true. Documents which say:
- Philip Morris monitored the smoking habits of people as young as 12 because "today's teenager is tomorrow's regular customer."
- A Philip Morris memo warned that the smoking rate among 12 to 18 year olds was declining, which meant the company would "no longer be able to rely on a rapidly increasing pool of teenagers from which to replace smokers lost through normal attrition."
- A later Philip Morris memo which noted an "encouraging upward trend" in youth's smoking rates.
- A RJR executive wrote in one memo, "to insure increased and longer-term growth for Camel Filter, the brand must increase its share of penetration among the 14 to 24 age group ... which represents tomorrow's cigarette business."
- One RJR memo suggests putting cigarette billboards near where young people hang out including near rock concert halls, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, video game arcades, city basketball courts, and record stores.
- A RJR memo which says, "any desired additional nicotine kick could be easily obtained through pH regulation."
The tobacco giants have recently been ordered to release another 39,000 internal documents, a major breakthrough for consumers. The judge ruled that the industry improperly concealed research about nicotine, addiction, and even the brand preferences of children as young as 5 years old. The judge said that the industry deliberately misrepresented documents to hide evidence of crime and fraud.
One of those documents sets out a scheme in which the tobacco companies agreed among themselves not to do research into the health hazards of smoking, while simultaneously issuing public assurances that the health risks of smoking were unproved. The documents also detail four decades of secret industry efforts to manipulate the impact of nicotine to keep smokers hooked. The most common method, according to documents, is the addition of ammonia to boost the level of nicotine.
Because of these revelations, for the first time ever, it appears Congress will formulate a policy to reduce the pain, suffering, and death caused by this addictive drug.
It is absolutely essential that the nation's tobacco policy protect our children, force the tobacco companies to make public all of their secret documents, and force the industry to be held accountable for all of its illegal and immoral acts.
It is disturbing to watch people huddled outside of their offices in the cold of winter because they are too addicted to nicotine to quit. It is outrageous that 3,000 American children start smoking every day, some of them before they have graduated from elementary school. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of nearly 500,000 people who die every year from tobacco related causes.
Just the other day, I heard the story of a 31 year-old mother of two children who was fighting lung cancer. Less than a week after the story aired, she died.
As I thought of all this, I recalled the Great Man's funeral. People flew in from all over the country. The church was too packed to hold all who came to pay their last respects to this man. A special sound system was set up so that they could hear and take part in the service. For years after his death, people came to his family to share endless tales of how he had helped them. His fourth daughter, the law student at the time of his death, remembers a grown man crying as he related the story of how her father had saved his business from bankruptcy and had never asked to be paid. He was ashamed that even though he had made a financial recovery, he had never paid her father.
The stories she heard had a common thread. Her father had touched each of these lives in a special and meaningful way. He had always given of himself without asking for anything in return. He had championed causes when it was the right thing to do without regard for their popularity or the risk involved.
After years of seeking closure and answers for the senseless death of the Great Man, his daughters have finally received a little of both through the good works of trial lawyers.
For all the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands whose loved ones' lives have been cut short by tobacco, and for all the suffering yet to come, their heroes are trial lawyers. For all those whose families and loved ones have been spared heartache and pain because the tobacco industry's sordid secrets have been revealed, their heroes are trial lawyers.
And my hero ... he was a trial lawyer, too. He was a Great Man. He was my father.
And, while I could not provide my father with the reassurance he was seeking when he asked me how he could continue his work when he had lost his voice, I strive every day to continue his legacy and keep his spirit alive. He would have liked that his daughter, thirty years later, would follow in his footsteps as the president of MATA, an organization he dearly loved.
Like each of you, and like my father, I am proud to be a trial lawyer.