From tobacco to 9/11 to class actions, trial lawyer
Donald Migliori creates change by ‘challenging truth’
BY NICK DIULIO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRYCE VICKMARK
MILDRED WILEY NEVER SMOKED A DAY
in her life, but when she died of lung cancer
on June 24, 1991, it appeared clear that
cigarettes were to blame.
For 17 years, Wiley had worked as a
veteran’s hospital nurse in Indiana, and
one of her primary responsibilities was
to light cigarettes and hold them to the
mouths of patients who were unable to
do so themselves. When she succumbed
to cancer at age 56, her husband, Philip,
needed to hold someone accountable.
He filed a wrongful death lawsuit against
several major tobacco companies. His
attorney was famed South Carolina lawyer
Ron Motley, and when the case went to
court in the winter of 1998, Motley brought
along his new protégé, Don Migliori.
Just a few months prior, Motley had
recruited Migliori to join an epic legal crusade
that eventually contributed to four major
tobacco companies agreeing to pay $248
billion to the victims of their products—the
largest civil settlement in U.S. history. It was
a life-changing journey for Migliori.
“Getting that assignment was nirvana,”
says Migliori, now managing partner for the
Providence office of Motley Rice. “I finally felt
like I could use the technical skills I had been
developing, and I could use them against this
monster in the field of public health.”
Motley gave him the weighty
responsibility of working with a key witness:
former U.S. Surgeon General and anti-
smoking pioneer Julius Richmond.
The Wiley case was the first of many, and
when Richmond took the stand in Indiana that
winter, Migliori’s perspective on the purpose
and power of litigation was transformed.
“Here I was in this crazy, energized, rock
star world of Ron Motley—and we lost the
case,” recalls Migliori. “But when it was over,
Richmond leaned over to me and said, ‘Don’t
ever get discouraged about losing, because
you’ve successfully done more for public
health by stirring up conversation with this
trial than I ever did as surgeon general.’”
Since then, Migliori has gone on to
represent victims of everything from terrorism
to defective medical devices while winning an
astounding number of cases against goliaths
like the National Football League, the airline
industry and major asbestos manufacturers.
“But that first tobacco trial was the
‘aha’ moment for me,” says Migliori. “It
was amazing to see Richmond leave the
courtroom with such pride even after a
loss, because he knew we had touched
thousands of people. We had educated
through litigation. And I feel like that’s
what I’ve set out to do ever since.”
FROM A VERY EARLY AGE, MIGLIORI KNE W
he wanted to help change the world—he
just didn’t know how to go about it. As the
youngest of five boys, he watched all of his
siblings follow their father’s path to medicine.
That road wasn’t for him.
“My dad always thought I had a
penchant for challenging people’s
preconceived thoughts, and for as far
back as I can remember, I had the belief
that my life was going to be more about
challenging truth than operating on
people,” says Migliori.
It wasn’t until he enrolled as an undergrad
at Brown University in 1984 that Migliori
figured it out. Inspired by his adviser—who
was associate dean of the medical school
and an expert in bioethics—Migliori’s eyes
were opened to the ways in which law could
be an instrument of social transformation.
The early stages of his legal career were
successful but far from inspirational.