“THERE AREN’T MANY THINGS in this world that we can do anything about,” McConnell told the jury. “But here in this courtroom, you have been given a unique opportunity.”
Jack McConnell grew up in modest circumstances. He and his five brothers squeezed into two bedrooms, three boys in each, in a small Warwick house. And while they were young, Jack and his brother, Bob, shared the same bed.
Their father, John J. McConnell, a revered and iconic Brown University administrator for 30 years, set out a non-materialistic catechism for the family.
“What my dad brought to us was that things weren’t important,” McConnell recalls. “So if you’d ever say: God, I love my baseball glove, he’d say: You can’t love things; you can only love people.”
This may explain why McConnell seems almost uncomfortable with his enormous success as a lawyer in some of the nation’s most seminal legal battles — as if the millions he’s earned are an accident.
But he has been on the winning side too often to be considered merely lucky.
Just this week, McConnell’s most important case cleared a major hurdle when a Superior Court judge upheld a 2006 jury verdict — the first in the nation — against three national companies once involved in producing lead-based paint.
In his ruling on Monday, Judge Michael A. Silverstein ordered a cleanup that could cost the companies a lot — the ballpark figure is between $1.4 billion and $3.7 billion — to counter the effects of the aging paint that remains on thousands of Rhode Island homes. As part of its representation of the state, McConnell’s firm could earn big fees.
McConnell, a major Democratic Party activist, won’t say how wealthy he is, beyond acknowledging that, at age 48, he doesn’t have to work any more if he doesn’t want to.
Public records give a hint: his Elmgrove Avenue home on Providence’s East Side, not far from where Mayor David N. Cicilline resides, is assessed at $1.7 million. A Charlestown seacoast home is valued at almost $3 million.
Further, Motley Rice LLC, the Mouth Pleasant, South Carolina-based law firm in which McConnell is a principal, is reported to have earned astonishing fees. Several years ago, Forbes magazine wrote that Motley Rice’s share of the historic tobacco settlement case, brought by 46 states, will total $2 billion over 25 years.
When McConnell does talk about the money, it’s in terms of the financial firepower it gives lawyers to invest in risky, but socially important cases that he sees as ultimate battles between good and evil, the weak against the powerful. “It’s a struggle to stick up for the Davids against Goliath,” McConnell says.
Corporations sometimes make products or act in ways that hurt people, this argument goes. Lawyers use the legal system set things right, battling big odds and earning no money unless they win.
“If there is a wrong out there,” McConnell says, “we live in a society, in our system of government, that says that the law has to offer a remedy. And that’s how I see my legal world and my profession: the ability to right wrongs.”
Afflicting the comfortable
Critics, however, say that “trial lawyers” like McConnell are opportunists, always on the hunt for emotionally tearing cases and rich corporate pockets to plunder.
Since being recruited by Motley Rice in 1986, McConnell has been involved in three major cases that test these opposing views.
Initially, he helped pursue lawsuits on behalf of workers and others sickened by asbestos and suffering horrendous cancers and lung illnesses. A Rand Corporation analysis estimates that 730,000 people have been involved in lawsuits costing companies and insurers $70 billion. McConnell says Motley Rice has represented 50,000 such clients.
Next, Motley Rice played a key role in the titanic cases against tobacco companies. McConnell himself helped write the historic 1998 settlement in which cigarette companies agreed to pay $246 billion to 46 states in the first 25 years, and more later.
The Providence lawyer is particularly proud of the section he helped draft that bans billboards and cartoon advertising, bringing an end to tobacco’s Pied Piper icon, Joe Camel.
And now, McConnell is one of the architects of the Rhode Island lead paint case. On February 22, 2006, a Superior Court jury found that three companies, Sherwin Williams, NL Industries, and Millennium Holdings, contributed to a “public nuisance” — the danger that residual lead paint poses to children.
In his final argument at the end of the four-month trial, the longest civil trial in Rhode Island, McConnell seemed to invite jurors to his crusade.
“You know, there aren’t many things in this world or even in our community that we can do anything about,” he told the jury. “But here in this courtroom, you have been given such a unique opportunity: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help the kids and to rid our state of this toxic substance.”
The critics saw it differently.
The American Tort Reform Association placed Rhode Island on its list of “Dishonorable Mentions,” warning that the paint case so distorts legal principles that manufacturers of other products may be exposed to lawsuits to remedy “almost any societal ill.”
Even the hometown Providence Journal declined to cheer the potential infusion of billions of lead-abatement money, saying that the judgment was unfair and should be overturned.
A Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined “Motley Legal Crew,” delivered the harshest verdict: “The trial bar is looking for its next industry to loot. It may have found it last week in a state court in Providence, Rhode Island.”