NCAJ Hero Profile: Charles G. Monnett III
Charles Monnett III has made plenty of headlines in his four decades of practicing law, handling some of the highest-profile cases in North Carolina. Advocating for the victims of accused Ponzi-scheme conman Rick Siskey and representing the families of Keith Scott and Jonathan Ferrell, both Black men killed in police shootings, are among the most recognizable.
The bulk of Monnett’s clients never made the news though — those injured at the hands of drunk drivers, patients harmed by medical negligence or workplace accidents, and the countless victims of traumatic brain injury. Through the years, Monnett has steadily helped everyday people realize justice and achieve compensation, dealing with multimillion dollar cases one day and turning around the next to settle a case worth a fraction of that.
Meanwhile, he has rendered a separate career’s worth of volunteer service to professional organizations and causes, including NCAJ — all the while maintaining a vigorous waterskiing habit, hitting Lake Wylie with a group of contemporaries as often as he can find someone to drive the boat.
It’s not exactly the role he envisioned for himself when he left Greensboro to attend Appalachian State University. The plan was to become a forest ranger. Then in law school at the University of North Carolina, he set his sights on being an environmental lawyer. He wanted to help save the world.
In recognition of his work toward that end, and for his extraordinary and selfless service to the people of North Carolina, NCAJ will honor Monnett with its Thurgood Marshall Award at Convention 2022 in Charlotte.
NCAJ Board of Governors member Lauren Newton, who has worked with Monnett since 2011, was among those who nominated him. She said Monnett sets a clear example: Stand up for what’s right no matter what the cost.
“Taking on a case that might seem insurmountable to others because you believe in it and giving it everything and making a difference — that’s what sets Chuck apart,” Newton said. “Being able to practice with someone like that for over a decade really shapes your career and how you want your practice to look.”
Shaping careers is a large part of Monnett’s legacy, done by example and through hundreds of donated hours of legal education. Over the course of his career, Monnett developed a deep knowledge of traumatic brain injury while representing clients in personal injury cases. He has presented scores of CLE courses and lectures on the topic for NCAJ and national organizations.
His commitment to sharing underscores the advice he would offer anyone coming out of law school today.
“Never forget that the practice of law is a profession not a business. Make sure you give back more than you take.”
When he took his first traumatic brain injury (TBI) case in the late ’80s, TBI could accurately be described as a silent epidemic, and the specialized practice of neurolaw was just emerging. In the decades since, Monnett has become a leader in the practice of connecting the constantly evolving study of neuroscience with the application of personal injury law.
“I was inspired by my first brain injury client,” Monnett said. “She was a really incredible individual who worked with developmentally disabled kids. She was the kind of person I was proud to represent, someone who had given so much of herself.”
Monnett’s client suffered mild TBI, but it completely changed her life. Part of the challenge of TBI cases is that the injuries can be hard to demonstrate. Monnett won a $1.3 million verdict for her, and they still stay in touch. A student of this legal niche, he was inspired to share what he learned.
“It became very clear that many individuals with brain injuries were not being properly represented and their cases were being resolved for inadequate compensation,” Monnett said.
In 2008, Monnett helped plan a national conference for the Brain Injury Association of America, the first to bring defense and plaintiffs’ experts together to confer on the topic. He served for eight years as a member of the Governor’s Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Council of North Carolina and on the board of directors of the Brain Injury Association of North Carolina for two terms. He was on the executive committee of the American Association for Justice’s Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group and a member of the AAJ’s Birth Trauma Litigation Group.
Supporting the Greater Good
Monnett’s service work goes far beyond TBI-focused groups. He has served as president of both the invitation-only Melvin Belli Society and the invitation-only Southern Trial Lawyers Association. The STLA honored him with its Tommy Malone Great American Eagle Award, as “a powerful example of the bold pursuit of excellence and justice,” an honor he is particularly proud of as Malone was a friend.
He has served as president of the Mecklenburg County Trial Lawyers Association, as well as a member of the American Bar Association, North Carolina Bar Association and Mecklenburg County Bar Association.
For NCAJ, he serves as an AAJ governor for North Carolina. He has served as NCAJ vice president for communication and on the Board of Governors. He is a member of the Auto Torts & Premises Liability Section, the Professional Negligence Section and the Workers’ Compensation Section.
Monnett recalls being a young lawyer in awe of NCAJ founders.
That devotion to associations gets passed on to the next generation.
“When I came to work for Chuck, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘You have to be a member of AAJ and NCAJ,’” Newton recalled. “It wasn’t even a question. This was just what you needed to do as a trial lawyer to support the greater good and advance civil justice, to support pro-civil justice candidates and legislation.”
Another thing Monnett would encourage young lawyers to do: Get involved in politics. He’s a longtime supporter of NCAJ’s political action committee and would like to see more young lawyers engage with the political process. That doesn’t mean getting into mud fights on Twitter, but working for change.
Monnett has never sought political office. Some of his cases have put him in the public eye, though. Among those, Monnett named the 2013 police killing of Jonathan Ferrell, a young Black man, as the most memorable.
A former Florida A&M University football player, Ferrell wrecked his car late at night and went to a nearby house to ask for help. Someone inside called police. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers responded, and former officer Randall Kerrick wound up shooting Ferrell 10 times, killing him.
“It was the first police shooting case I’d ever done,” Monnett recalled. “He was an outstanding person, no threat to anyone. As challenging as police shooting cases are now, they were even more challenging then. It’s always an uphill battle.”
The city of Charlotte settled a civil lawsuit with the family for $2.25 million. Monnett said the facts of the case had a lot to do with the outcome. Facts alone don’t win a case, though.
A jury charged with deciding whether Kerrick committed voluntary manslaughter saw the facts and could not arrive at a verdict. Eight voted to acquit, four voted to convict — a mistrial. The case was not retried.
As the NPR podcast Embedded pointed out in a 2017 episode including the case, “The death of Jonathan Ferrell is one of the few police shootings where nearly every piece of evidence and every perspective was publicly examined and presented. And yet people still came to startlingly different conclusions about what happened.”
Monnett told NPR that the prosecution could have made better use of the police body cam video. The podcast pointed out that in his deposition, Monnett took statements from the other officers on scene and compared them to the video, frame by frame, highlighting the discrepancies in their recollections and the video.
Newton describes Monnett as a consummate professional.
“I’m reminded of the Michelle Obama quote, ‘When they go low, we go high,’” she said. “While opposing counsel might take the low road, Chuck always takes the high road.”
That mindset extends to his wardrobe, too, Newton said. During the pandemic, when dressing casual was universally accepted, Monnett came into the office every day wearing a tie.
The dress code ends at the water’s edge. Waterskiing is one of the ways Monnett unwinds. The other way is heading to his garage to work on restoring one of his 15 classic cars, the oldest dating to 1948, his favorite being the 1963 Studebaker Avante. He does the mechanical work and even sews the interiors himself.
“It’s a good release when you’re all stressed out.”