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John Edwards’ first witness was one of the defendants — a registered nurse who was in the delivery room when a brain-damaged child was born. Calling the defendant to the stand as a witness for the plaintiff was a huge risk. If Edwards was unable to get the woman to recount the series of errors alleged in his opening statement, he essentially would be doing the defense team’s work for them. The gamble worked: The nurse confirmed nearly all the mistakes alleged against the hospital staff in the case. Three weeks later, Edwards and the defendants negotiated a confidential settlement before the jury returned a verdict. “He did a lot of damage,” says James Cooney III, one of the defense lawyers in the 1994 case. “We couldn’t do any cross-examination with her. She was just done after Edwards was done with her.” Plaintiff lawyers by nature are risk-takers, placing their businesses on the line with each case. Most, including Edwards, take cases on a contingency basis — fronting the costs to file an action and bring it to trial. If they don’t win, they don’t get paid. Edwards, however, took risk to a whole new level in his legal practice. In a state where defense lawyers win 90 percent of the time, Edwards excelled as a personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer. In the courtroom, not only did he take chances in his tactics with witnesses, but also he would strike jurors openly friendly to his case — just to gain favor with the rest of the jury pool. And perhaps more importantly for his bank account and political future, he played brinksmanship with the damage awards he sought for clients — once walking away from a $17.5 million settlement offer to take a case to a jury. The jury came back with a $25 million award. The tightrope walking evident during his days as a lawyer foreshadowed Edwards’ political career. Virtually unknown, Edwards in 1998 swooped into the U.S. Senate having never run for public office before and winning against an incumbent Republican in an increasingly conservative Southern state. After a single term in the Senate, Edwards made a hard run for the presidency. And when that move failed, he campaigned for the vice presidential nomination — eventually becoming the popular choice among the Democratic rank and file. Now, Edwards is the first plaintiffs lawyer on a national ticket in at least 40 years, and on July 28, he had the spotlight at the Democratic National Convention where, in a 30-minute speech, he laid out the reasons why Americans should vote for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in November. Edwards may be a risk-taker, but that doesn’t mean he is reckless. Former law colleagues and opponents say all of Edwards’ decisions were calculated — whether they were in choosing cases, in preparing them for trial, or in settlement negotiations. “None of his cases were won by luck,” says Raleigh lawyer Peter Sarda, who worked with Edwards on a handful of cases. A NEW PRACTICE From the beginning, Edwards was always pushing for more. Edwards started out in 1978 as a successful defense lawyer in Tennessee only to give up that practice after three years to start a personal injury practice at Raleigh, N.C.’s Tharrington, Smith & Hargrove. At the time, medical malpractice was still in its infancy and was viewed by many in the plaintiffs bar as too risky and costly for most law firms. Juries and judges were extremely conservative in North Carolina, and the state requires all 12 jurors to render a unanimous verdict. It was rare for awards to ever reach, let alone top, $1 million. In just two years’ time, the then-31-year-old surpassed those boundaries. In 1984, Edwards won a $3.7 million verdict against a hospital in Asheville, N.C., on behalf of an alcoholic who claimed he was severely brain-damaged by an overdose of drugs prescribed by his doctor. One year later, a jury in Greenville awarded Edwards’ clients $6.5 million for brain damage allegedly caused by Pitt County Memorial Hospital during the birth of Jennifer Campbell. (The trial judge set aside the verdict, and the two parties eventually settled for $4.25 million.) In 1991, Edwards won $2.2 million for the family of a woman who committed suicide — a verdict that the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly dubbed the first successful medical malpractice case in Wake County, which includes Raleigh. “Until Edwards arrived, the playing field was radically shifted in favor of the defense in these kinds of cases in North Carolina,” says Burton Craige, a Raleigh lawyer who worked on nearly 50 cases with Edwards. “I believe meritorious cases failed because plaintiffs did not have the tools or resources to match well-funded, experienced defense counsel and insurance companies who were funding them. “Edwards shifted that balance,” Craige adds. “When he walked into a case, he inspired other plaintiff lawyers that this is possible.” That shift began with a formula — how cases would be picked, reviewed, and tried. Edwards found the right experts from the medical and financial fields to prove his case and quantify damages. No new legal precedents were set, but Edwards designed a blueprint of arguments for his cases. The rest depended upon his performance in the courtroom — an ability his brethren say was unmatched. With such rigorous preparation, Edwards could afford to take chances. RISING REPUTATION In the Campbell case, many in the jury pool had some connection to defendant Pitt County Memorial Hospital, whether it was a relative who worked there or a child who was born there. During jury selection, Edwards came across one woman who had a bad experience at the hospital. Under questioning, it became clear that she still had some bitterness about it. Rather than wholeheartedly embrace this potential juror, Edwards took on the role of defense attorney and in front of the entire jury pool questioned her ability to be fair. “I had never seen anyone do that before,” says Craige, Edwards’ co-counsel in the case. “Instead of saying ‘How can I manufacture this to make sure this juror isn’t struck,’ he took the opposite approach and gained credibility with the jurors.” As the amount of Edwards’ verdicts rose, so did his reputation. In 1993, Edwards left Tharrington, Smith to start his own practice with law school friend David Kirby. The two hired a team of nurses to review and prepare cases. Edwards also took on a mentor-type role within the close-knit plaintiffs bar. Some would hire him as co-counsel to their cases. Others blatantly used his formula for success. Edwards’ experts were routinely used by other lawyers. “He brought a new level of expertise, a new level to the trial of a case, and helped teach lawyers in North Carolina how to handle such cases,” says Howard Twiggs, a longtime Raleigh plaintiffs lawyer and former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. “Cases are better prepared and better screened now because John was a lawyer.” By the time Edwards left trial work to run for the Senate in 1998, insurance companies were paying upward of $8 million to settle catastrophic injury claims, according to the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. In 1998, the average malpractice recovery was $3.3 million. Some lawyers say part of that jump can be attributed to rising medical costs; others say it was directly tied to Edwards’ influence on the profession. Edwards won more than $152 million in more than 62 cases, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Two of Edwards’ final cases settled for more than $20 million each. Both remain the largest medical malpractice and personal injury awards in North Carolina history. Toward the end of his career, Edwards would refuse to depose the defense’s experts before trial, according to Cooney. The defense lawyer says Edwards’ view was that by doing so, he was giving away too much of his own case. Again, the move was risky. Without questioning the experts, Edwards would be heading to trial without the knowledge of what they would testify to. But by 1996, Cooney says, Edwards had amassed so much experience in the medical malpractice field that he could win cases without the depositions. “He had already played the chess match,” says Cooney, a partner at the Charlotte office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. “He knew what they were going to do, and sometimes he would force them to do what he wanted them to do.” Edwards handled his Senate campaign much the same way he prepared for trial. He hired some of the best political advisers — including former Bill Clinton strategist Bob Shrum. And Edwards sought funding from those most likely to support him — trial lawyers. In politics, Edwards appears to have been as good at reading the tea leaves as he was in assessing juries. Last year, Edwards decided against running for re-election for his Senate seat in order to campaign for the presidency. The move was less of a gamble than it may have first appeared: His approval numbers in North Carolina had been sliding. By now, many of Edwards’ former colleagues in North Carolina have stopped doubting what he can accomplish. “He called me when he was planning on running for the Senate, and I thought, ‘This guy has finally overreached himself,’ ” says Asheville lawyer Joel Stevenson. “ Then he calls to say he’s going to run for the presidency, and again I thought, ‘You’re absolutely out of your mind.’ “ Adds Stevenson: “Eventually we all came to our senses and realized if John says he can do it, he probably can.”

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