John Carroll, Daily Report
BWP Partners: Buddy Morrison, James Butler, Jr., Joel Wooten and Brandon Peak
There's a picture in James E. Butler Jr.'s Columbus law office of him and his daughter Catherine with former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and his daughter Michelle, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican David Perdue for the U.S. Senate.
They were at a fundraiser for Michelle at Usher's house in Atlanta. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker.
When he was a young plaintiffs lawyer, Butler nearly went to work for Nunn in 1978. "Sam Nunn offered me a job. I would have moved to Washington. I was tempted, but turned it down," Butler said.
Probably a good thing he did. Over the last 37 years, Butler, a partner at Butler Wooten & Peak, has become one of the most successful civil trial lawyers of his era, winning multiple verdicts over $100 million in high-profile cases against big business, most notably General Motors and the automotive industry. For his distinguished law career, Butler on Thursday night will become the Daily Report’s first Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Although he has never run for office, the 63-year-old trial lawyer has always had an interest in politics as an active constituent and as a financial backer of candidates that he supports. It's tough to pin him down on his political persuasion, although by most accounts, he leans left.
"I'm just moderate. A Sam Nunn Democrat and a Johnny Isakson Republican," explained Butler, who splits his time between law offices in Columbus and Atlanta. "I don't understand extremism in either party. Intellectually, I think it's bad for the country. Matter of fact, the biggest disappointment over the last six years has been the failure of the Democrats to empower the Republicans to move to the center."
As a master of his craft in the courtroom, Butler has been the center of attention often in the more than 170 jury trials that he has tried to verdict. With his diligent preparation, booming oratorical style and command of an audience, Butler has won four verdicts over $100 million, 10 verdicts over $10 million, plus another 10 verdicts more than $1 million.
Colleagues of Butler say the 1977 University of Georgia Law School graduate has always had a gift for speaking on his feet and controlling the courtroom.
"I've known him since he started practicing," said William Tucker, 68, a business litigation attorney with Page Scrantom Sprouse Tucker Ford in Columbus. "Jim is one of the best and very close to the best lawyers that I've ever worked with and against. He is incredibly quick on his feet, and he truly has majesty about him when he is in the courtroom."
The early 1990s case that put Butler on the map involved the Moseley family and the death of 17-year-old Shannon C. Moseley, who was burned alive when a defective fuel tank in his General Motors truck exploded at impact. Shannon's parents sued GM, Butler and his team represented the Moseleys, and the theater was set for history to be made.
Over the course of the monthlong trial, Butler and co-counsel argued that the design of the "sidesaddle" fuel tanks on trucks placed outside the body chassis, such as the one on Moseley's 1985 GMC Sierra pickup, made them likely to explode in side collisions. The lawyers also told the jurors that GM's own testing indicated the sidesaddle tanks were hazardous.
Product liability finalist Daniel Ragland, Wayne Curtis, finalist James Butler, William Stone and finalist L’Erin Barnes
On Feb. 4, 1993, after three days of deliberation, the jury found General Motors guilty of negligence and awarded $105 million to Thomas and Elaine Moseley. It remains the largest product liability verdict in Georgia history and was at the time the nation's fourth-largest product liability award. Moseley v. General Motors, No. 90-V-6276
Six years after Moseley, Butler and company broke their record by winning a $150 million verdict in Alabama in Hardy v. General Motors Corp., a product defect case against GM for failing to fix a known fatal hazard in axles and door latches. The case was brought by Alex Hardy, 38, who was left a paraplegic after a faulty driver-side door latch malfunctioned and ejected him from his vehicle.
The Moseley and Hardy verdicts, and others like them, pushed Butler and other plaintiffs lawyers into the national media spotlight and helped drive consumer awareness of automobile safety in the 1990s, which eventually led to the manufacture of safer cars, according to Butler.
"Back in the late '80s, none of the automobile makers advertised safety," he said. "Lee Iacocca tried to market safety at Chrysler in 1989 and was excommunicated by the automotive industry."
"Big verdicts generate publicity," explained Butler. "And that got the public thinking more about safety. It's a snowballing effect. Then the automakers had to advertise safety, and that forced them to actually make the cars safer. And cars are incredibly safer now than they were when you and I were young, exponentially."
Butler says he is pleased with the decrease in fatalities reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—the number of deaths involving a motor vehicle in 2012 was 33,561, down 39 percent from 54,589 in 1972. The fatality rate per million vehicle miles traveled during the same time frame has dropped from 4.33 to 1.13.
"The auto products [liability] business has cratered in the last 15 years," said Butler. "The reason is, plaintiffs lawyers won and cars are a lot safer. The truth is, wreck cases don't exist anymore and not as many people are getting killed. And that's a good thing."
Besides high-profile product liability cases, Butler has produced significant verdicts in cases involving medical malpractice and business torts. The list of verdicts and settlements include: $454 million in Six Flags Over Georgia v. Time Warner Entertainment Co., (co-counsel) in favor of the original investors in the amusement park for a scheme by Time Warner to deliberately suppress the property's value; $161.7 million in cash settlements in U.S.A. v. J.P.Morgan Chase, in which six banks settled qui tam cases; and $153 million in McBride v. Life Insurance Co. of Virginia, a class action settlement related to universal life insurance policies.
"Jim has a sixth sense knowing what's important and what's not," said defense lawyer Thomas S. Carlock of Carlock Copeland. Carlock has opposed Butler a handful of times in court with "mixed bag" results, he said.
"He's powerful in the courtroom," said Carlock. "He really knows how to represent his client and how to sell his case. He's a genius in his field, a standout wherever he goes."
James Butler Jr., center, accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award from Wayne Curtis, left, and William Stone.
In 2006, Butler pledged $1 million to endow the James E. Butler Scholarship, which provides full tuition for students who want to study public interest law at UGA's School of Law. That same year, Butler established the James E. Butler Jr. Fellowships in Ecology at the institution's Odum School of Ecology with a $1 million gift. The fellowships are available to graduate students studying environmental issues, including water quality and land use.
A lifetime of outdoor experiences, including a love of fishing and bird dog hunting on his farm in Bluffton, instilled in Butler a deep regard for the environment. As a result, the firm supports numerous environmental causes. Butler also served on the board of directors of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources from 1998 to 2005.
"That's what I am first—an outdoorsman," said Butler, pointing to the various prints and photographs of hunting scenes in his office. "I mainly run bird dogs and trout fish. I love the outdoors."