James Butler, 84; Groundbreaking Lawyer, Activist, Art Collector

Times Staff Writer

James G. Butler, who won the first jury verdict in a civil thalidomide case and whose role in founding a local chapter of the NAACP caused controversy in Compton, has died. He was 84.

Butler died of cancer May 26 at his longtime home in Hancock Park, said his son, James Butler Jr.

He made his name as a drug products lawyer in 1971 with a judgment against Richardson-Merrell, the company that tested thalidomide in the U.S. in 1960 and 1961.


Butler had successfully argued against the company’s standard defense: Even though the drug it marketed as a sleeping aid had been linked to children born with deformed limbs, the company could not be held accountable because the thalidomide had been taken too late in pregnancy to cause harm.

Known for his colorful and charismatic courtroom presence, Butler once told a jury in a pharmaceuticals case, “If you do justice, you’ll sock it to ‘em.”

In the thalidomide case, he argued that the experts could be wrong about what period of a pregnancy is crucial to fetal development and showed the jury the evidence -- the plaintiff’s daughter. The jury came back with a $2.75-million verdict, later reduced to a reported $500,000.

Butler would go on to litigate each of the about 20 thalidomide cases in the U.S., his son said.

“He embraced issues of great importance that would have taken real intestinal fortitude,” James Butler Jr. said.

Maxcy Filer recalled how Butler, then a 35-year-old city attorney, stood up to city officials after becoming first vice president of the Compton NAACP in 1955.

“The City Council even asked Jim Butler, ‘What can we do about this NAACP?’ Jim said, ‘You accept it .... In fact, here’s my membership card.’ They all kind of kept quiet for about five minutes,” said Filer, the unofficial historian of the Compton NAACP. “Back then, the Compton NAACP had more white members than we did black.”

The city attorney narrowly beat a recall effort orchestrated by the City Council in 1955. According to The Times’ coverage of the recall, the council said it “could not rely on Butler’s advice and considered his rulings “self-serving.” But Filer said the recall “was directly related to Butler founding the NAACP.”

Butler would remain involved with the Compton NAACP until he moved to Hancock Park in 1958 in a house originally built for Bernard Baruch, a financier and advisor to presidents.

James Girard Butler was born Sept. 26, 1920, in Elizabeth, N.J. His father was a postman who traveled on a railroad mail car. After earning his bachelor’s degree from St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., Butler enlisted as a flier in the Marine Corps in 1943, piloting fighter planes in the Pacific theater. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, three Gold Stars and five citations for bravery.

When he came down with malaria during World War II, he was treated by Eugenia Louise Jefferson, a nurse and master sergeant in the Marines who became his first wife. They married in 1945, and he earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 1947.

They raised their children to become political activists and were known for having an open house with a guest list that included members of the Black Panther Party. They also threw parties for art world friends with Caribbean music so loud that the police would show up. One neighbor, then head of the John Birch Society in Southern California, circulated a petition asking the family to sell the house, said Eugenia Butler, the eldest of the children.

“I sent my brother Justin out there and said, ‘You tell them we are selling the house to the Black Panthers,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.

Her father was the main investor in his wife’s innovative galleries, which helped legitimize conceptual art in the 1960s. The Eugenia Butler Gallery, open from 1968 to 1971, was applauded by a Times art writer as adventuresome.

Eugenia Butler once staged a monthlong exhibit by Icelandic artist Dieter Rot, consisting of 20 suitcases filled with cheese. The show ended when the Los Angeles Health Department closed it down.

James Butler also collected the work of several important artists, including the conceptual artist James Lee Byars, said his daughter, who is also an artist. The Otis College of Art and Design exhibited a survey of Eugenia Butler’s work in 2003.

His interest in art was one example of Butler’s capacity as “an intellectual giant,” said Patrick Maloney, a San Antonio lawyer who met Butler through the Inner Circle, an exclusive organization for trial lawyers that Butler helped found in 1972. (Original qualifications: All members must have won at least a $1-million verdict in a case involving physical injury or death.)

Butler successfully represented clients in major litigation involving the 1974 crash of a DC-10 in Paris and the 1986 hijacking of a Pan American World Airways liner in Karachi, Pakistan.

Richard Daum, a paralegal who worked with the lawyer from 1980 until he retired in 1992, compared walking into Butler’s Wilshire Boulevard offices to “walking into MOCA downtown.” Eight Andy Warhol lithographs of Marilyn Monroe, in addition to other well-known artists’ works, lined the walls.

Butler’s first marriage ended in 1970. His second marriage, to artist Morgan Thomas, lasted from the late 1970s to 1989.

His first passion was for his work, but it was not without remorse. “When he was 70, he took me out and said his one regret was that he didn’t spend more time with each and every one of his children,” James Butler Jr. said.

Still, the son played enough Scrabble with his father, a collector of dictionaries, to conclude: “He knew more two-letter words that got you 50 points than anyone I ever met.”

Butler is survived by nine children and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Callanan Mortuary, 1301 N. Western Ave.