Thomas Malone, right, and his son Adam checking out their company’s jet DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in 2010. Tommy Malone was for years one of Georgia’s top plaintiff’s attorneys, routinely garnering million-dollar verdicts. He succumbed to cancer recently. Jason Getz, jgetz@ajc.com
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

One of Georgia’s most successful lawyers lived large

In the late 1950s, a ninth-grade teacher at Albany High School had heard enough from one pupil, an oversized orator named Thomas William Malone Sr.

Family lore recalls that she ordered him to the principal’s office, to which Malone replied, “May I ride on your broom?”

This may explain why, for the rest of his life, no one ever called him Thomas, or the slightly less-formal Tom, but that he forever remained the untamable “Tommy.”

Early on, he wanted to be a rodeo rider, or maybe a blacksmith or auctioneer. Or maybe, when he later traded some quarter horses for a Ford Fairlane, he wanted to be James Dean.

In any case, “Tommy always went big,” said his friend Spencer Lee, a Dougherty County attorney. “He already had a boat when we were high school, and he got into flying when we were [at the University of Georgia].”

Imposing at 6-feet-4, Malone grew into possibly the state’s best medical malpractice lawyer. Former Governor Roy Barnes, both a close friend and court adversary called him “the best trial lawyer I’ve been in the court with.”

Friends and colleagues say Malone’s trial language was precise, direct, truthful, logical and lyrical. Another longtime friend, Buddy Dallas — he was singer James Brown’s general counsel for 24½ years — said Malone’s preparation was impeccable and his style was remorseless.

“I think Tommy knew the techniques of surgery better than many surgeons,” Dallas said. “When questioning a doctor he could summarize and get to the point quick. Watching Tommy was like seeing him bring out the scalpel, dissecting that doctor and then leaving him there holding his entrails.”

Tommy Malone, 76, died Oct. 1 at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla. (he had two others, at Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas and Sandy Springs). He’d retired in March 2016, immediately after a stomach cancer diagnosis. Given nine months, his son Adam Malone said, Tommy endured roughly 90 rounds of chemotherapy and lived 3½ years.

The family held a private service in Albany on Oct. 5.

He was born November 2, 1942, in Albany to Petrona “Toni” Malone and Rosser Adams Malone, a prosecutor and judge.

Tommy and Spencer Lee were graduates of Albany High and the University of Georgia, though Tommy got his law degree at Mercer.

Both were anti-authority types in a distinctly 1950s style. For instance, they went to Albany High’s prom in a tuxedo top and cut off shorts. Another time when Rosser Malone paid Lee 50 cents to tutor Tommy in math, the two drove to the Pig and Whistle, bought a pitcher of beer and played pool all night.

But Lee said Malone’s subversive waters ran deeper than most. When Malone began practicing in his father’s firm in the mid 1960s he was drawn to the medical malpractice cases that most lawyers loathed. This meant, on occasion, going after some of the city’s power elites, or as Adam said, “my daddy began suing my granddaddy’s friends.”

In the late 1960s Malone represented a 16-year-old Jewish girl against a popular town doctor who also sang in the Methodist choir. Though he’d been told the girl was allergic to the drug Azulfidine, the doctor prescribed it anyway for her ulcerative colitis. The teenager became paralyzed from the waist down and had other serious side effects.

For Malone, who knew he had an airtight case, it was a lesson in 1960s deep-South politics, paternalism, and racism. Recalling the case several years ago Malone said, “I still have an abiding faith in God, I just didn’t have much reason to put on my Sunday finest and go [to church] and sit and listen to the hypocrites talk about it.”

But until the late 1970s Malone won few medical malpractice cases. A lawyer only collects if he wins, and at one point Malone’s finances dipped so low he sold the family car to meet office payroll.

He made ends meet handling divorces and criminal cases. But he also broadened his base by working alongside C.B. King, the lone African American lawyer practicing south of Macon — another middle finger raised toward Albany’s establishment.

“Tommy was a great lawyer,” said Herbert Phipps, a partner with King who later served as a Dougherty County and Georgia Court of Appeals judge. “And he had a lot of courage associating with us. But in a sense he realized that (malpractice) cases were a lot like civil rights cases — it’s about getting justice for folks.”

Malone left Albany for Atlanta about 1983, and became far more successful.

Adam, who was his law partner for 16 years, estimates that Tommy recovered as much as $300 million for his clients, “though it could be a lot more.”

“What you look at,” Adam said, “is that dad helped put a lot of people back to work, helped improve their health and got them money to pay for care rather than having to turn to tax-payer funded government sources.”

And Malone was not was bashful about spending the money he was now making.

Only in the late 1980s, when he married his third wife Deborah “Debbie” Blankinship Malone, did his partying wane, at least a little bit.

“Debbie provided the social connections, the networking,” Lee said. “Tommy was missing all that. She remembered all the birthdays, planned the parties. And that’s when Tommy started saving money.”

Several days after Tommy’s death, Barnes recalled a conversation from before Malone’s marriage to Debbie. He and Malone were preparing to square off in court, except Barnes couldn’t find him. Finally, by phone, he reached Malone who was on his boat somewhere in the ocean. The future governor could distinctly make out singing and raucous laughter.

“Roy, how you doin’?,” Malone shouted. “Why don’t you come down and join us?

“Tommy, I’m pretty busy right now,” Barnes said, “and you know we have a case coming up. When do you plan on getting back?”

“I’ll be back all right,” Malone assured Barnes. “As soon as the money runs out.”

Malone is survived by his wife Debbie Malone, by his two sons Tommy Malone, Jr. and Adam Malone, and his four grandchildren.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Tommy Malone

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