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Lawyer Limelight: Jodi Westbrook Flowers

Photo by Jack Alderman.

Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many victims and their families are still waiting for justice and compensation. This ongoing struggle has formed a significant part of the litigation practice led by Jodi Westbrook Flowers at Motley Rice, whose lawyers have waged a multifaceted and multijurisdictional pursuit for accountability. Flowers serves on the executive committee in the massive multidistrict litigation (MDL) against the alleged financiers and supporters of al Qaeda, and she represents individuals participating in the new Victims Compensation Fund. The Motley team also successfully represented those who opted out of the initial victim fund to pursue litigation against the aviation industry over security lapses.

In these battles and others, Flowers is carrying on the work of the late Ronald Motley, the legendary firm founder who passed away in 2013. She clerked for Motley as a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law, then later cut her teeth on the historic tobacco litigation of the 1990s that Motley spearheaded to an epic and historic settlement. In a groundbreaking trial last year, the Motley Rice anti-terrorism team won a unanimous jury verdict in Brooklyn federal court holding Arab Bank liable for financing terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Flowers, who is based in the firm’s headquarters in Charleston, S.C., also applies her mentor’s lessons to a range of mass tort cases outside of the terrorism and human rights arenas, playing lead roles in litigation stemming from the BP oil spill and faulty GM ignition switches.

Lawdragon: You and the firm have done a tremendous amount of work representing victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. What is the status of the 9/11 MDL at this point?

Jodi Flowers: In the 9/11 MDL, we currently await the district court’s decision on Saudi Arabia’s recently renewed motion to dismiss. Motley Rice and I are proud of the work we have done for the 9/11 families, be it in the context of assistance with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund I or II, against the aviation industry for negligent security measures, or against the sponsors of international terrorism. We trust in our courts and civil justice system to set the record straight one day. The Anti-Terrorism and Human Rights practice group I lead at Motley Rice represents the 9/11 families, families killed or injured by Libyan terrorism under Qadhafi – Lockerbie, LaBelle disco, and IRA bombings – victims of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, victims of international hotel bombings, victims of torture, human trafficking and other human rights abuses.

LD: Please talk a little bit about your work for the current Victims Compensation Fund in terms of how many victims the firm is assisting with this process. How burdensome is the process for applicants and, in most cases, is it very likely they receive the compensation they are seeking?

JF: What has happened to the health of the rescue, recovery and clean-up workers at the 9/11 sites in the wake of 9/11 is a national tragedy. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund II is a start at addressing the public health crisis, but only a start. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and World Trade Center Health programs need 100 percent funding to address the public health disaster that is occurring and to fully compensate those injured and dying from toxic exposures. Many clients have suffered immense tragedies leaving them to deal with the aftermath of intense trauma, like terrorism, that few are equipped to handle alone. Victims and survivors often feel that their suffering will never end, and the claims process can make it worse. I and others at Motley Rice work to try to bring the workers and residents we represent some measure of compensation for their damages. It is too soon to comment on the case values given the uncertainty about full funding for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

LD: Can you share some thoughts on the significance of the Arab Bank verdict and the potential of this type of litigation to cut off terrorist financing? Also, at the damages phase in August, what amount will the plaintiffs be seeking?

JF: The Brooklyn jury’s verdict in the fall of 2014 holding Arab Bank liable for financing the Hamas terrorist attacks was one heard around the world and an historical event in our civil justice system, and I am very proud of this result. My hope is it will have a chilling effect on financial sponsorship of international terrorism over time. Terrorist organizations would have a difficult time sustaining themselves if they are not funneled cash that allows them to travel, recruit and train members, or plan and carry out attacks. The case was an eleven-year battle with grueling discovery and briefing schedules, multiple appeals and finally a full liability trial with a unanimous jury verdict under the Anti-Terrorism Act. I give the lion’s share of the credit for this result to my late partner Ron Motley for his unparalleled courage and to my current partner Michael Elsner for his deft, Herculean effort in litigating the Arab Bank liability case to verdict.

As to the damages phase, the parties have reached an agreement to settle the litigation and that the framework will be finalized over the next few months.

LD: How did you get into this area of law? Did you ever envision doing anything like this in law school?

JF: In law school, I wanted to work with clients who needed a voice, to make a difference where I could. After passing the bar, I hung out a shingle and planned to do family law in hopes of helping children. Instead Ron Motley, whom I clerked for in law school, told me I would spend my career fighting over pots and pans. The comment gave me pause, and when Motley asked me “to look at a few” (million) tobacco documents with him in 1993, after he took over the Haines v. Liggett case, I started reading liability documents and embarked on the tobacco litigation. After seven long years, the cases resolved. During that time, I became completely hooked on mass torts. Ironically, torts was my least favorite law school class. I recall being outraged at the notion that corporations make decisions based on money value over the value of human life. It astounded me conceptually, logically, morally.

LD: Is there a lesson or particular experience that stands out from working on the tobacco litigation?

JF: So many experiences from the tobacco cases stand out in my mind. I enjoyed working with public health experts and representing Mississippi’s Attorney General, Mike Moore, and Florida’s Governor, Lawton Childs. Working with tobacco whistleblowers was challenging and rewarding. The deposition of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand in the State of Mississippi tobacco case was much better than as depicted in the movie “The Insider”; uncovering the details of R.J. Reynolds’ “Mouse House,” a research lab in the 1960’s where the RJR scientists grew cancerous legions on mice by painting the animals’ skin with cigarette tar. In response to this scientific result, RJR shut down the Mouse House, destroyed the animals and equipment, and gathered the lab notes for the legal department; the first time reading the Brown & Williamson documents that Merrell Williams exposed, a treasure trove of liability documents. And when Bennet LeBow of Lorillard decided to break ranks with big tobacco – all of these were landmark moments.

LD: Ronald Motley was also a regular Lawdragon 500 member. Can you share something you learned from him that continues to impact you today?

JF: I am fortunate to have known Ron Motley. Ron’s ability to connect with the jury, his brilliance, wit and skill in the courtroom were innate, unteachable, and legendary. Yet Ron leads still by the example he set, by the way he prepared his cases for trial. Lessons I learned from Ron? No fight is too big and never back away from a fight, but pick your battles. Be curious and vigilant; find out your clients’ goals; sign the clients yourself; go to their homes; sit in their kitchens; hear their stories; pursue the truth and justice they seek.

Look for the cover-up, but beware the conspiracy theory; always get an ethical opinion; prep your witness well, but vet them better; read everything, read the footnotes too; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; learn the facts and law of your case cold before facing your jury; make time to educate the judge about your case; be the most prepared person in the room; use your vocabulary; put the important evidence, law or point on page one of your filing; your reputation for honesty is the only real currency in the practice of law; let the defendant’s written words speak for themselves at trial; seek out the foremost experts in the field to help teach you and the jury the issues in your case; leave no stone unturned in the search for relevant evidence; and never give up a trial date.

Ron understood the power of informal discovery and how much you can learn about your adversary in the public domain long before Google. Ron kept his sense of humor intact and understood that the most important thing we do as advocates for our clients is bring them some measure of justice. Ron taught me that and so much more.

LD: Your cases tend to be massive and complex, often with an international component with a wide range of defendants, and usually last several years or longer. What type of mentality or personality does it take to work on these types of cases? How do you keep seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for your clients?

JF: Often in complex mass tort or terrorism cases, you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a bit of an endurance test. You need curiosity, tenacity, motivation and vigilance. Get to know your clients, understand their goals, then work to ensure that they are met. Most of my clients seek answers to questions that have been kept silent by powerful interests.

LD: I know you also work on somewhat more traditional civil cases, including the GM ignition action. What will you be doing on that this year?

JF: I work on the BP oil spill, Takata airbag defects, GM ignition switch defect litigation and other cases because I believe it is important to keep your practice diverse. GM is an old school products liability case, but it also involves allegations of decades-long cover-up. GM has admitted it failed to report a known safety defect to regulators or the public as required by law. Joe Rice and I are currently taking GM liability depositions and participating in the preparation of the liability case against New GM in advance of bellwether trial settings beginning in January 2016. In Re: General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, Case No. 14-MD-2543-JMF (S.D.N.Y.).

LD: Your practice obviously involves many weighty topics. What do you do to relax or to clear your head outside the office?

JF: I couldn’t do the work that I do without the support of my family, friends and dedicated co-workers. I look forward to spending time with my family and friends – they keep me grounded. I also enjoy art, music, concerts, backgammon, theatre, travel.

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