The King of Torts

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The King of Torts
King of Torts by John Grisham cover.jpg
AuthorJohn Grisham
CountryUnited States
GenreLegal thriller novel
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover, Paperback)

The King of Torts (2003) is a legal/suspense novel written by American author John Grisham. Doubleday published the first edition (ISBN 0-385-50804-2) in hardcover format; it immediately debuted at #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list, remaining in the top 15 for over 20 weeks.[1] Dell Publishing published the paperback edition later in 2003 (ISBN 0-440-24153-7). Penguin Random House released an audiobook version in 2007.[2]


Clay Carter is a poorly paid public defender who dreams of joining a large law firm. One day he reluctantly takes on the case of Tequila Watson, a man accused of a random street killing. Watson insists that he somehow wasn't in control of his body when he pulled the trigger, a story which Clay tries to dismiss, but can't get out of his mind. Clay tries his best to help his client, plunging into the most dangerous parts of the Washington D.C. slums in search of evidence which may help his case. Clay finally gets a subpoena, forcing drug rehabilitation centers to hand over Watson's medical records, as well as those of another man accused of a similar, apparently motiveless murder.

Meanwhile, there is a crisis in Clay's personal life. For four years he had been steadily dating Rebecca Van Horn, a junior Congressional aide. Clay and Rebecca are deeply in love with each other, but Clay deeply loathes her father, Bennett Van Horn, an aggressive real estate developer whose suburban schemes are destroying the countryside of North Virginia. When Clay refuses an offer to work for a Senator in Richmond, who is closely involved with these real estate deals, Rebecca's father pressures her into cutting off relations with Clay and hastily marrying a rich corporate lawyer.

While reeling from this blow, Clay is unexpectedly contacted by a mysterious man named Max Pace. He is told that his digging into medical records had touched the edge of a potentially major scandal. As it turns out, Watson and other recovering drug addicts were experimented on illegally by an unnamed pharmaceutical company and administered with a drug called Tarvan. While effective in stopping drug addiction, in 8% of the cases Tarvan had led the test subjects to commit random and senseless killings, which the pharmaceutical company wishes to pay to cover up. Clay is asked to resign from his job as a public defender, and arrange in complete secrecy a series of large payoffs to victims of these killings. This involves the ethical and moral problem of Clay undertaking to completely hide from his client, who faces a life behind bars, this vital information about his case. However, Clay rationalizes that he has no way of proving in court what he heard from Pace. Going along with the scheme he would enable the families of the victims, who otherwise would have gotten nothing, to gain huge compensations and would make Clay himself rich overnight, enabling him to get back at Rebecca's father who had called Clay "a loser."

Clay hastily opens his own law firm specializing in torts, hiring several of his friends and colleagues: Paulette, Rodney and Jonah, respectively a lawyer, a paralegal and a computer expert. Having gained enormous lots of money in a brief time, he continues to work with Max Pace, who provides him with insider information concerning another defective drug, Dyloft. The drug is produced by the Ackerman Laboratories, a competitor of the unnamed company for which Pace works. Advised by Pace, Clay orchestrates an "ambush," coming out with an intensive TV campaign and signing up thousands of clients who had developed tumors, most of them benign, some deadly because of Dyloft. He immediately enters the ranks of the mass-tort fraternity, lawyers who specialize in suing big companies and making settlements in the hundreds of millions and among whom possession of a Gulfstream private jet is an indispensable status symbol.

Having made no less than $100 million from the Dyloft deal, Clay's story becomes front-page news, the media dubbing him "The King of Torts." He buys a prestigious Georgetown house, crashes Rebecca's wedding while escorted by a stunningly beautiful model, and is invited to a ball in the White House after having given the president a $250,000 donation. Clay is also very generous to his three former colleagues from the public defender's office who helped him establish his firm; they are flabbergasted at getting $10 million each. However, Clay's thousands of clients (whom he never actually met) are bitter at getting only a bit more than $50,000 each, under the Dyloft settlement, while he became a multi-millionaire at their expense.

Max Pace then reappears, offering Clay information on yet another defective drug, Maxatil. Expecting to repeat his success, Clay recklessly makes enormous expanses: launching a massive coast-to-coast TV campaign, signing up dozens of additional lawyers and paralegals as well as doctors to examine the Maxatil users, renting enormous lots of additional office space. Soon he has signed up thousands of "Maxatil clients" but it turns out that from the mass tort point of view, Maxatil is quite risky. Though it is defective, conclusively linking its defects to a user's poor health is far from easy. Moreover, it produced by Goffman, a company known for toughness and unwillingness to compromise on tort suits. The future of Maxatil tort suits in fact depends mainly on the outcome of a single, long drawn out test case run by an aging maverick lawyer in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Meanwhile, FBI agents appear, starting to interrogate Clay on suspicion of insider trading. A criminal lawyer who he consults with tells Clay that, having sold Ackerman shares short while knowing he would sue the company and push down the value of its shares, he is indeed culpable. Should the FBI get enough evidence, Clay could face as much as five years behind bars. Max Pace, who has several other aliases turns out to be a crook and con man who is very much wanted by the FBI and who had disappeared without a trace.

Immediately following this blow, Clay's big success, the Dyloft deal, suddenly boomerangs. Dyloft's effects turn out to be much worse than was realized at first, and many of those first diagnosed with benign tumors turn out to have very malignant and deadly ones. Terminal patients, their condition directly connected to Dyloft, could have sued Ackerman for millions, except that Clay's firm had already signed away their rights for a pittance. Instead, these embittered clients sue Clay for malpractice, using the services of an aggressive lawyer who specializes in feeding to mass-tort lawyers some of their own medicine. Clay faces the prospect of being forced to pay many millions to his unhappy, cancer-ridden clients, which might easily consume all his assets and more.

Desperate for money, Clay turns to the last mass tort he has in play, a non-pharmaceutical one against Hanna, a building supplies company which had produced some batches of defective cement. It is an old family firm, well known for trying to be fair to both its clients and employees. The Hanna directors are willing to offer a fair compensation to the damaged homeowners but could afford to do so only if Clay agrees to cut his share of the compensations. Facing the enormous suits by his Dyloft clients, Clay refuses to give up anything, with the result that the Hanna company goes bankrupt, causing the loss of thousands of jobs, a terrible disaster for the town of Reedsburg where the company is based. When it becomes known in the town that the collapse was caused by "a greedy lawyer," Clay is beaten up by some men from Reedsburg who ambush him near his office.

While Clay is slowly recovering from his wounds in the hospital, Rebecca suddenly shows up. Her marriage had collapsed, she had broken with her odious father and came to support Clay and tend to him. Having regained her love helps him take calmly the final coup de grace to his career: the jury in Arizona had rejected the Maxatil tort suit and all the millions which Clay invested in Maxatil had gone down the drain. He has no choice but to declare bankruptcy, close down his firm, give up all his assets, and surrender his license to practice law. The FBI gets off Clay's back, due to the loyalty of an old friend who refuses, at some risk to himself, to provide the necessary incriminating evidence against Clay.

Having nothing to lose any more, Clay decides to come clean about the original affair of the illegally tested drug Tarvan. He gives all his information to an intrepid investigative journalist, providing a good guess as to the company which produced Tarvan, while a crusading criminal lawyer will attempt to re-open the cases of Clay's old client Watson and of several others imprisoned for killing under the influence of Tarvan.

Finally, Clay and Rebecca take off for London, a last flight in the jet which soon will not be his any longer. A friend had provided a small apartment in the British capital where they could stay. He is not completely broke; Paulette, Rodney and Jonah, the friends to whom he was so generous at his moment of glory, insist upon giving back some of the money he had given them. Clay and Rebecca would have a comfortable and happy life, though without the opulence which he had momentarily enjoyed and no longer misses.

List of characters[edit]

  • Jarrett Clay Carter II - The main protagonist of the story
  • Max Pace - a mysterious adviser of Clay Carter
  • Tequila Watson - A victim of the side of effects of the mysterious drug, Tarvan
  • Adelfa Pumphrey - Mother of the slain victim, committed by Tequilia Watson
  • Rebecca Van Horn - Clay's on and off girlfriend
  • Bennett Van Horn - Rebecca's rich interfering father
  • Barbara Van Horn - Rebecca's pushy mother
  • Jermaine
  • Miss Glick
  • Oscar Mulrooney
  • Paulette Tullos
  • Ridley - Clay's model girlfriend used to make Rebecca jealous
  • Patton French - The wealthiest tort lawyer in the U.S.
  • Dale Mooneyham
  • Rodney
  • Jonah


  1. ^ "The New York Times Best Seller List" (PDF). February 23, 2003..
  2. ^ Grisham, John (2007). The King of Torts. Random House Audio. ISBN 9780739357798.