At the successful end of one of Don Downing’s trials, a massively built farmer came over to give him a hug.
Downing, the managing partner of Gray, Ritter & Graham, has had a career that has spanned the political to the agricultural. His father, Vic Downing, was a Missouri state representative from southeastern Missouri for 20 years, and Downing himself worked on the 1980 U.S. Senate campaign of Tom Eagleton.
After earning his law degree from the University of Missouri in 1982, Downing clerked for U.S. District Judge Edward L. Filippine of the Eastern District of Missouri, then joined the Kansas City firm known now as Stinson. He made partner but, in 1993, he became the chief deputy attorney general under the then-recently elected Attorney General Jay Nixon. It was a good melding of two of his interests.
“Even though I ran the law side of the office, when you’re in a position like that you can’t help but be immersed in the political side as well,” he said.
Among other things, the job took him to the U.S. Supreme Court four times, including a 1994 case that he argued personally involving the constitutionality of a Missouri tax. At the end of his public service, Downing rejoined his prior firm and became the managing partner of Stinson’s newly opened office in St. Louis.
“I was in a position to imprint the culture and tradition of the firm into the new office,” he said.
He joined Gray, Ritter & Graham in 2004. Among other honors, he is a Fellow of the invitation-only American College of Trial Lawyers, as well as a former member and chairman of the MU Board of Curators.
A native of Kennett in Missouri’s Bootheel region, Downing grew up around farmers and has been taking farming-related cases throughout his career, typically involving issues with the large corporations that dominate the agricultural industry.
“I think farmers are salt-of-the-earth people,” he said. “They’re not litigious by nature, but they do want justice when they’ve been hurt.”
Major cases that Downing has led include a $750 million settlement in 2011 involving genetically modified rice. He also served as national co-lead counsel in multidistrict litigation involving Switzerland-based Syngenta’s genetically modified corn, resulting in a $217.7 million verdict in the Kansas portion of the case, followed the next year by a $1.51 billion settlement of the entire suit. And this June, Downing announced a $400 million settlement for farmers who alleged they suffered crop damage caused by drift from the pesticide dicamba.
Such cases take years to litigate and often involve untested legal issues. For Downing, the thrill of the litigation is a side benefit.
“I enjoy complex litigation. I do,” Downing said. “But what really drives me to persevere during these four- or five-year cases and all of the expenses and all of the complexities is what I view as the end result. That’s when you’re able to send a check out to a farmer that can make a difference in the farmer’s life.”