But even before he scored $400 million in legal fees from the tobacco settlement, Scruggs wasn't motivated mainly by money--or mainly by altruism. "I do like the kinds of cases, like the ones against tobacco companies and HMOs, that can help a lot of people," he says. "But I mainly like the action. I like big, complicated cases against tough defendants that most lawyers don't want to take on."
Much of Scruggs' competitive drive comes from his mother Helen--still a formidable bridge player at age 89. She graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.--a rarity among women in the 1930s. Her husband left when Dickie was five, and she reared the boy while working as a secretary at the Ingalls shipyard. (My mother worked alongside Helen, and our families have been friendly for 40 years.)
Scruggs' other formative experience came in the U.S. Navy, which he joined in 1969 after graduation from the University of Mississippi. He recalls thinking that "if I'm going to Vietnam, I'd rather do it as an officer." He won the fierce competition to become a fighter pilot and was assigned not to Southeast Asia but to an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, where he was on hand for the nuclear alert during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Scruggs cooked up a daring plan, in case of war with the U.S.S.R., in which U.S. aircraft would fly beneath the radar of Soviet warships, then pop up suddenly and use antitank bombs to destroy the ships' cruise missiles. His commander adopted the scheme, and Scruggs had his first taste of plotting to crack defenses that had been thought to be impregnable.
After the Navy and law school, Scruggs worked a while for big firms in Jackson but chafed at the hierarchy and soon hung out his shingle in Pascagoula. His big break came when a shipyard worker approached him for help getting treatment for a lung disease that turned out to be asbestosis. Scruggs began paying to have workers tested for the ailment and soon had all the clients he could handle. But he hasn't forgotten the days when he had to scrounge. Driving to work recently, Scruggs stopped as an ambulance screamed past in the opposite direction. "It's hard," he said with a grin, "not to turn and follow that thing." Not for the money, of course. For the action.