The writer is a Los Angeles freelancer and former Detroit News business reporter. This column first appeared in his blog, Starkman Approved and is being republished with permission.
By Eric Starkman
As a former journalist, James E. Butler Jr. knows how to tell a good story. Unfortunately for Ford Motor Co., 12 jurors in suburban Atlanta didn’t like the one Butler told about the roof on the automaker’s supposedly “Super Duty” 2002 pickup truck under which Georgia farmers Melvin and Voncile Hill were crushed eight years ago after their vehicle rolled over.
Butler was the lead plaintiff counsel responsible for the landmark $1.7-billion punitive judgment handed down by a Gwinnett County State Court jury last week after a three-week product liability trial. Butler alleged that the roofs on Ford’s Super Duty trucks were flimsy and failed the company’s own internal testing -- but it continued selling them anyway. His team introduced evidence showing that Ford engineers developed a stronger roof for the Super Duty pickups in 2004, but the improved version wasn’t adopted until the 2017 model year.
Butler has a storied history of winning landmark Georgia cases. He said the previous record Georgia verdict was a $454 million judgement against Time Warner in 1998 for alleged breach of fiduciary duty in the company’s management of Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park. Butler was the lead plaintiff counsel in that case.
All told, Butler has secured eight verdicts in excess of more than $100 million, four of them records when awarded. Butler’s accomplishments make clear he’s a danger to mess with, but Ford’s legal and PR departments apparently are slow learners.
After the $1.7 billion verdict against Ford made national news, the company issued a statement saying, “While our sympathies go out to the Hill family, we do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence, and we plan to appeal.”
The statement didn’t sit well with Butler, who issued a press release in response.
“Nobody from Ford Motor Company (emphasis his) has ever, before today, expressed any ‘sympathy’ for the Hill family. The first time anyone purporting to speak for Ford ever said such a thing was a Ford lawyer in closing argument on August 17, 2022 – eight years and four months after Voncile and Melvin Hill were killed on April 3, 2014.
“Second, the press should make Ford answer the question ‘what evidence did Ford present at trial contrary to the compensatory and punitive damages verdicts?’ The answer is: nothing.”
Ford’s defiance came as no shock to Butler.
“Ford is unique and singular in the extent to which they exhibit disdain for the law, for courts, and for jurors,” Butler said.
In response to Butler’s comment, Ford spokesperson T.R. Reid said, “We typically don’t comment on pending litigation, partly out of our great respect for the legal process. While we don’t believe the verdict is supported by the evidence and plan to appeal, we won’t litigate the matter through the news media.”
Ford’s chief legal counsel is Steven Croley, who reports directly to CEO Jim Farley and Jon Huntsman, Ford’s vice chair for policy and a senior advisor to Farley and Executive Chair Bill Ford. Croley, who joined Ford in July of last year, is a legal heavyweight: He earned his law degree from Yale, holds a doctorate in government from Princeton, held influential legal roles in the Obama White House, and made partner at the powerhouse law firm Latham & Watkins. He also served as associate dean at the University of Michigan Law School.
Butler’s initial professional pursuit was journalism, writing for newspapers beginning at 15 and later graduating from the University of Georgia School of Journalism. Although after graduation he had various job offers, including from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Butler opted to go into the home building business.
Although initially successful, the economy turned south and left him soaking in $250,000 worth of debt, quite a sum in the early 70s. Butler instead chose to go to law school and was awarded a full scholarship to attend Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, he needed to keep running his home building business to pay off his debt, so he accepted a full scholarship to attend the University of Georgia Law School, from where he graduated cum laude and where he won both the first year and second year moot court competitions and was elected to the Law Review.
Among the influences that prompted Butler to become a lawyer was a 1968 accident in which he was driving his father’s Chevy Corvair, a vehicle highlighted in Ralph Nader’s automotive industry expose called, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Butler inexplicably fell asleep driving the Corvair one early evening and hit a double power pole, severely damaging his hip and disfiguring his face. Months later, Butler’s father received a GM recall notice, alerting him that carbon monoxide was possibly leaking into the vehicle.
While attending law school, Butler clerked at a major Atlanta law firm, where a brief he wrote got a lawsuit against a local bank dismissed. Butler didn’t feel good about the accomplishment, as he thought the case had merit.
Butler said his grandfather, who played an instrumental role in his upbringing, would have been ashamed.
“My grandfather was a Roosevelt Democrat, and he would have rolled in his grave if he knew what I had done,” Butler said.
That prompted him to specialize in personal injury law because he realized “citizens didn’t have great lawyers.”
After graduating law school, he joined a small law practice in Columbus, Georgia in 1977 and two years later launched his own firm in that city, which is about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta. In 1982, Butler opened a second office in Atlanta. In 2018, he opened a third office in Savannah.
A close-knit team
Butler’s partner is Ramsey Prather, a graduate of Tulane Law School and a former law clerk to the Honorable William H. Pryor Jr. on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and to the Honorable Lance M. Africk on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Prather also has also been involved in landmark cases, including being part of a record $280 million jury verdict in a wrongful death trucking case.
Butler Prather has two associates, three paralegals, two investigators, a legal assistant, a legal intake specialist, a CFO, and a bookkeeper. For a time, Butler’s only son and namesake was a lawyer with the firm, but seven years ago opted to go out on his own. Butler’s Atlanta office is leased from his son.
Butler is active in Georgia’s legal community and various charitable organizations, and previously served as President of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, and as a founding director of the Georgia Civil Justice foundations. In 2017, Butler funded the lead gift to the University of Georgia School of Law to launch the Veterans Legal Clinic, which aids veterans and their dependents to obtain benefits and services, particularly those with mental and physical disabilities resulting from their military service.
Butler is also active in environmental causes, having served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources and was a founder Flint Riverkeeper Inc., an organization dedicated to protecting the Flint River and its tributaries.
Not about the money
For the children of Melvin and Voncile Hill, the Georgia farmers who were killed in a Ford Super Truck, Butler said the case was never about the money. In 2018, when the case was first tried but a judge declared a mistrial because of multiple violations of court orders by Ford lawyers, Kim Hill, the eldest son of the Ford truck victims, testified, “We could end all this if Ford would just take back every Ford truck with a roof like my parents.’”
Butler said that Kim and his brother Adam initially refused to consider settling the case, but that he “beat them up” into being open to an offer provided it met a certain monetary threshold.
“Ford never came close to offering that number,” Butler said.
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