On the day in 1997 that John Edwards delivered the closing argument in the biggest case of his career, the courtroom in Raleigh, N.C., was packed with young lawyers who had come to hear the master speak. The plaintiff, Valerie Lakey, 8, had been hideously injured three years earlier when she was caught in the suction drain of a wading pool. Most of her intestines had been ripped from her body. For the rest of her life, she will need to be hooked up to feeding tubes 12 hours a day.
During the trial, Edwards discovered through cross-examination that the manufacturer of the pool's drain cover had failed to inform the court of a host of other injuries and deaths that resulted when the cover had slipped off drains in other pools. In his summation Edwards used all his fabled powers of persuasion. (This was, after all, the guy who once addressed a jury in the imagined voice of an unborn child trying to alert her delivery-room doctor to problems with her birth.) "All 12 jurors kept their eyes on Edwards during his entire speech," recalls Judge Robert Farmer, now retired, who presided over the case. "When they came back with a verdict, eight or nine of them were crying." But the jurors composed themselves sufficiently to award $25 million to the Lakey family--the largest judgment in North Carolina history.
It is easy to forget sometimes that John Kerry is a lawyer by training. He seems to have gone straight from Vietnam to the Senate. It is impossible to forget that Edwards practiced law. Before he was elected to the Senate in 1998, he spent 20 years as a trial attorney, one of the most successful in the nation. His specialty was medical malpractice, particularly cases involving infants who suffered trauma during delivery. Edwards won judgments totaling more than $152 million in 63 lawsuits, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Most such cases are undertaken on a contingency-fee basis--meaning the lawyers collect nothing if they lose but commonly take about one-third of the award if they win. From the moment Edwards emerged as a possible presidential contender, Republicans have tried to cast him as a millionaire ambulance chaser, the kind of man who forces doctors and businesses to pay ever higher liability-insurance costs, which are passed on to consumers. Edwards argues that he was defending the consumer and that high premiums have more to do with bad financial management at insurance companies. But the fight goes on. George W. Bush last week told a crowd in Pennsylvania, "You cannot be pro-small business and pro-trial lawyer at the same time. You have to choose."
One of Edwards' earliest court victories--the one in which he did the impersonation of an unborn child--has become one of his most controversial in medical circles. In 1985 he won a judgment of $6.5 million (later reduced to $4.2 million) for a child born with brain damage and later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Edwards maintained that the doctor who delivered her should have more closely attended the fetal-heart monitor, which would have indicated the infant's distress, and should have opted for a caesarean delivery, which might have prevented the damage.