John Edwards - Legal Career

Legal Career

After law school, Edwards clerked for a federal judge and in 1978 became an associate at the Nashville law firm of Dearborn & Ewing, doing primarily trial work, defending a Nashville bank and other corporate clients. The Edwards family returned to North Carolina in 1981, settling in the capital of Raleigh where he joined the firm of Tharrington, Smith & Hargrove.

In 1984 Edwards was assigned to a medical malpractice lawsuit that had been perceived to be unwinnable; the firm had accepted it only as a favor to an attorney and state senator who did not want to keep it. Nevertheless, Edwards won a $3.7 million verdict on behalf of his client, who had suffered permanent brain and nerve damage after a doctor prescribed an overdose of the anti-alcoholism drug Antabuse during alcohol aversion therapy. In other cases, Edwards sued the American Red Cross three times, alleging transmission of AIDS through tainted blood products, resulting in a confidential settlement each time, and defended a North Carolina newspaper against a libel charge.

In 1985, Edwards represented a five-year-old child born with cerebral palsy – a child whose mother's doctor did not choose to perform an immediate Caesarean delivery when a fetal monitor showed she was in distress. Edwards won a $6.5 million verdict for his client, but five weeks later, the presiding judge sustained the verdict, but overturned the award on grounds that it was "excessive" and that it appeared "to have been given under the influence of passion and prejudice," adding that in his opinion "the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict." He offered the plaintiffs $3.25 million, half of the jury's award, but the child's family appealed the case and received $4.25 million in a settlement. Winning this case established the North Carolina precedent of physician and hospital liability for failing to determine if the patient understood the risks of a particular procedure.

After this trial, Edwards gained national attention as a plaintiff's lawyer. He filed at least twenty similar lawsuits in the years following and achieved verdicts and settlements of more than $60 million for his clients. Similar lawsuits followed across the country. When asked about an increase in Caesarean deliveries nationwide, perhaps to avoid similar medical malpractice lawsuits, Edwards said, "The question is, would you rather have cases where that happens instead of having cases where you don't intervene and a child either becomes disabled for life or dies in utero?"

In 1993, Edwards began his own firm in Raleigh (now named Kirby & Holt) with a friend, David Kirby. He became known as the top plaintiffs' attorney in North Carolina. The biggest case of his legal career was a 1996 product liability lawsuit against Sta-Rite, the manufacturer of a defective pool drain cover. The case involved Valerie Lakey, a three-year-old girl who was disemboweled by the suction power of the pool drain pump when she sat on an open pool drain whose protective cover had been removed by other children at the pool, after the swim club had failed to install the cover properly. Despite 12 prior suits with similar claims, Sta-Rite continued to make and sell drain covers lacking warnings. Sta-Rite protested that an additional warning would have made no difference because the pool owners already knew the importance of keeping the cover secured.

In his closing arguments, Edwards spoke to the jury for an hour and a half and referenced his son, Wade, who had been killed shortly before testimony began. Mark Dayton, editor of North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, would later call it "the most impressive legal performance I have ever seen." The jury awarded the family $25 million, the largest personal injury award in North Carolina history. The company settled for the $25 million while the jury was deliberating additional punitive damages, rather than risk losing an appeal. For their part in this case, Edwards and law partner David Kirby earned the Association of Trial Lawyers of America's national award for public service. The family said that they hired Edwards over other attorneys because he alone had offered to accept a smaller percentage as fee unless the award was unexpectedly high, while all of the other lawyers they spoke with said they required the full one-third fee. The size of the jury award was unprecedented, and Edwards did receive the standard one-third-plus-expenses fee typical of contingency cases. The family was so impressed with his intelligence and commitment that they volunteered for his Senate campaign the next year.

After Edwards won a large verdict against a trucking company whose worker had been involved in a fatal accident, the North Carolina legislature passed a law prohibiting such awards unless the company had specifically sanctioned the employee's actions.

In December 2003, during his first presidential campaign, Edwards (with John Auchard) published Four Trials, a biographical book focusing on cases from his legal career. According to this book, the success of the Sta-Rite case and his son's death (Edwards had hoped his son would eventually join him in private law practice) prompted Edwards to leave the legal profession and seek public office.

Read more about this topic:  John Edwards

Famous quotes containing the words legal and/or career:

    In the course of the actual attainment of selfish ends—an attainment conditioned in this way by universality—there is formed a system of complete interdependence, wherein the livelihood, happiness, and legal status of one man is interwoven with the livelihood, happiness, and rights of all. On this system, individual happiness, etc. depend, and only in this connected system are they actualized and secured.
    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)

    They want to play at being mothers. So let them. Expressing tenderness in their own way will not prevent girls from enjoying a successful career in the future; indeed, the ability to nurture is as valuable a skill in the workplace as the ability to lead.
    Anne Roiphe (20th century)