Two recent episodes of The Jury is Out (Episodes 214 and 215) feature attorney Tom Strong, now 89 years old. Throughout his long legal career, Tom was a fearless trail-blazing attorney based in Springfield, Missouri. Tom is considered almost a legend by many attorneys. We know many details about Tom’s personal and professional life from his 2012 autobiography, Strong Advocate: The Life of a Trial Lawyer. Tom’s dedication to the practice was so impressive that, in 2006, the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys created a new annual award, naming it the “Thomas G. Strong Trial Attorney Award.” Back in 2006, MATA announced to Tom that it would present this award to:
The Missouri trial lawyer who best exemplified what a trial lawyer should be. It would be the start of a tradition. The award would be given every year. Victories in court would be an important, but not the only, or perhaps even the main, criteria. Courage to fight the giants, professionalism, unimpeachable ethics, and a sterling character would be major considerations.
When Tom learned that MATA created this award in his name, he was overcome with emotion: “One of the proudest moments of my life.” Fast forward 15 years, we are happy to announce that for the year 2021, MATA has awarded John Simon the “Thomas G. Strong Trial Attorney Award.” There is a second noteworthy connection between Tom Strong and John Simon. It happened three decades ago. John Simon described the situation during the podcast conversation with Tom Strong:
[Erich Vieth, speaking to Tom Strong]:
. . . You’ve given hundreds of continuing education lectures. And back in 1988, you gave one, and a fellow named John Simon was sitting in the audience. John, do you want to take it from there?
First of all, Tom, I want to thank you so much. It is an honor. And I mean that to have you on our podcast. You don’t know me as well as I know you, but I followed your career for as long as I’ve been practicing. And you’ve been a mentor of mine without realizing it. Your career is just phenomenal, not just in terms of the skill and the things that you’ve accomplished, but also setting the standard for integrity and ethics and professionalism and really showing us all that you can get good results and do it all the right way. Thank you for everything you’ve done. Thank you for being on the podcast.
You know, I started practicing in 1986 and I was at a defense firm. One of the biggest firms here in St. Louis. I had been there a couple years and I snuck away to a seminar. I had gone to hear the speaker, a man named Tom Strong. This had to be probably 33 years ago or so. And I listened to you speak, Tom. It seemed like you were talking right to me. Everything that you said just resonated. I mean, it just hit me after I listened to you. I’d always thought about maybe doing plaintiff’s stuff and that was it. I mean, after that day, I really started looking. About a year later I left and started doing plaintiff work. I remember you commenting that the most important thing for me in that courtroom is my reputation because I worked so hard to build it. You want to hold it and keep it. And 33 years after I first heard you speak, I’ve received the great honor of receiving the Tom strong award from MATA. And it just, I’m just humbled and honored by that.
Well, you’ve made my day with this comment, when you can touch someone you’ve made an impression on the next generation. So when I hear stories like that and know the success that you and others have had, it warms my heart. So thank you so much.
Tom Strong was extremely successful as a plaintiff attorney, even though he began his practice a long time ago, in an era when it was difficult to thrive representing plaintiffs, before there was any such thing as discovery. Tom describes this time of one of “ambush law.” He practiced in Springfield, Missouri, which many attorneys considered to be relatively unsympathetic venue for plaintiff attorneys and their clients:
In those days, if you were a plaintiff’s lawyer, plaintiff’s lawyers were considered the scum of the profession. It was very, very difficult to make a living as a plaintiff’s lawyer. So it was just a bad time to be in our profession.
When Tom began his practice in 1955, attorneys representing plaintiffs on personal injury cases faced many legal obstacles. For instance, products liability did not become a viable legal theory in Missouri until the Missouri Supreme Court handed down Keener v Dayton Electric in 1969. Tom described additional legal hurdles faced by personal injury plaintiffs in the 1950s and 1960s:
[W]hen I started practicing law, they had a doctrine called contributory negligence and it meant that if an injured person was partly at fault for his or her own injuries, he or she received nothing. And so, if you were a pedestrian who was injured walking across the street, but not on the crosswalk, and were hit by a car, you were, according to the jury, perhaps 1% at fault, you got nothing. It was a horrible doctrine and prevented many, many people from recovering for serious injuries when they were not very much at fault. That has been replaced, of course, by comparative fault. A great improvement. Back when I practiced law, we also had an unconscionable doctrine called remittitur where over 25% of any jury verdict could be remitted in part by either the trial court or a court of appeals . . . A 16-year old boy was rendered quadriplegic in a railroad negligence case. The jury awarded that quadriplegic $270,000. The Supreme Court of Missouri said it’s too much for a youngster with a life expectancy of over 52 years and remitted that verdict down to $220,000. Wow. So it just horrible. When I started practicing law, we had a wrongful death statute that allowed the survivors of a person who was killed $15,000 maximum.
Early in his career, Tom was offered a job in a prestigious defense-oriented firm on the east coast, but he turned it down. He explained why:
Tom, it seemed like in your early career, there were many moments where you obviously had the chops. You could have gone out east and joined a prestigious firm, but you were determined to be a trial lawyer back in Springfield. Could you talk about your passion for doing what you ended up actually doing?
Of course, my upbringing was that I would be sympathetic to the underdog. As I became as a young man, interested in the law, I read. I read books about the famous trial lawyers and I was especially enamored and in awe of Clarence Darrow. I wanted to be what he was: a champion for the underdog, fearless and resourceful. So, yeah, that was my inspiration.
Early in his career, Tom showed himself to be an innovator. In a case involving a allegedly defective tow bar, Tom obtained identical vehicles (a pickup truck that was pulling a Thunderbird automobile), took video of the experiment using a film camera and used the video to win a substantial verdict.
in those days, how often would you see a plaintiff lawyer go out to buy a duplicate product and conduct a demonstration film? Was that the first one you ever saw or were there others out there at that point?
Oh, I never heard of anyone doing that. The closest thing that ever came to that was one of my earlier cases where I had someone ride on the top of a car. But no, that was unheard of.
Tom’s story about a person riding on top of a car can be heard at minute 20 of Episode 214.
Tom understood the supreme importance of earning the trust of the jury. He discussed this point repeatedly during his podcast discussions:
You never, never, never try to mislead a juror or a jury. It will not work . . . You want to establish credibility. You want to establish an emotional tie with them . . . There is a saying, I don’t know if I originated it or not, but the jury will take from those they do not like and they will give to those they like. So you want the jury not to like the defendant or the defendant corporation. And they must like your client. They have to like your client if you’re going to win a verdict . . . .There is no excuse for the jury not liking your client. You have to do whatever it takes to have a likable client. And if the client is a bad witness, it’s your fault. It’s not the witness’ fault.
You know, I’ve learned over the years that it ends up being about trust. You hear a lot about credibility and I think there’s a difference. If you’re credible, people will lend you an ear. If they trust you, they’ll follow you. That is what I’ve learned over the years. It comes back to the last episode [Episode 214], what I heard you say many, many years ago: Protecting your reputation, being honest, being straight forward. It doesn’t take much at all to lose trust or credibility of a jury.
Well, I think that’s a great lesson. I think you enunciated it very well.
At the age of 65, Tom had already discussed his retirement with members of his firm when he received a phone call from Jay Nixon, the Missouri Attorney General. Nixon wanted Tom to represent the State of Missouri against tobacco companies. This was to be part of a nationwide effort by many state attorneys general. At the time Tom agreed to take on Big Tobacco, attorneys nationwide had already sued tobacco companies 800 times over a period of 40 years without a single victory. One of Tom’s primary motivations was this: “10,700 people died from tobacco use in Missouri in 1995 alone.”
In Tom’s words, taking on this gargantuan case was an “act of faith” that the plaintiffs could somehow prevail in court and that these attorneys, who would incur many millions of dollars of costs representing the state, would be reimbursed and compensated for their time. Tom’s comment: “Why was I practicing law if it wasn’t to be a part of something that could do this much good for this many people?”
The Missouri tobacco litigation is a complex and fascinating story that ended well for the citizens of Missouri:
Your result was more than $6 billion to the state of Missouri.
It was $6.7 billion in the first 25 years. Payments will continue as long as tobacco was in business. But to me, more important than the money were the 18 pages of equitable relief that we obtained in the settlement. No longer could tobacco advertise on TV or in magazines. A warning had to be placed on every pack of tobacco that was sold. They couldn’t pass out cigarettes at a movie or in a grocery store. They couldn’t give away t-shirts with Chesterfield’s logo or the camel smoking a cigarette on them. They couldn’t sponsor race car drivers. So the equitable relief is really what has paid off for us. I take a lot of pride in the tobacco case. We didn’t destroy the tobacco industry, which is what I wanted to do, and I regret that. But we did cripple it badly. And ever since the settlement, more because of the equitable relief than the money judgment, tobacco sales have gone down and down and down. So today, if you are a smoker, you know the risk. Eight CEOs of the tobacco companies had once testified that smoking is a habit, not an addiction and it’s a pleasant habit. So they can’t get away with that anymore.
These are some of the many highlights from the two-part interview of Tom Strong. If you’d like to know more, you are invited to listen to Episodes 214 and 215 of the Simon Law Firm Podcast, The Jury is Out. Alternatively, you can do an even deeper dive by reading Tom’s book, Strong Advocate: The Life of a Trial Lawyer (2012).