Edward M. Swartz, at 76; lawyer fought for toy safety

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / September 6, 2010

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Boston lawyer Edward M. Swartz, a product safety advocate who garnered national headlines with his annual list of the 10 toys he deemed most dangerous, died Saturday from congestive heart failure at his home in the Brookline section of Chestnut Hill. He was 76.

Mr. Swartz, a Chelsea native who put himself through law school in the 1950s and began publishing the dangerous toys list in the early 1970s, won multimillion-dollar judgments for clients injured by defective products ranging from little toy people to pools.

“Millions of parents have lost a great defender against the broadening variety of toys that expose children at a very young age to toxic harm, physical harm, or explosive harm,’’ Ralph Nader, a fellow product safety crusader, said yesterday.

Known as “the Nader of the nursery,’’ Mr. Swartz “really related to the victims, the children,’’ Nader said. “Here’s this innocent child wanting to experience joy from a toy that their parents have given them . . . and suddenly they’re on their way to the emergency room or worse. He had a lot of empathy in this way.’’

Mr. Swartz appeared on many national talk shows over the years and was known for flamboyant tactics. At a 1997 news conference, he grabbed a Spider-Man Web Blaster and covered a toy industry executive with stringy foam. The executive later contended the incident showed the gun was safe.

Mr. Swartz wrote several books, including “Toys That Kill,’’ and founded the nonprofit World Against Toys Causing Harm, or WATCH, which created a curriculum for elementary school children in the 1980s about toy safety and liability laws.

Toys generally are safer now because of Mr. Swartz, Nader said.

“Very few trial lawyers move into prevention,’’ he said. “First of all, it’s not in their interest, and second, they’re overwhelmed with casework.’’

Toy industry advocates dismissed Mr. Swartz as an unobjective critic looking to make a name for himself.

Mr. Swartz, who founded the law firm Swartz & Swartz, told Boston Magazine in 1994: “I try to win the case for my client. But my responsibilities don’t end there. I try to get laws changed, too.’’

Born in Winthrop, Mr. Swartz was the eldest of three boys raised in a tenement in Chelsea. His father sold insurance. Mr. Swartz went to work in a meat market at age 9, but told people he was going to be a lawyer, he told several publications.

He later sold magazines, pots and pans, and encyclopedias, and put himself through college by renting pillows to travelers on the train between New York and Boston.

After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1955, Mr. Swartz studied law at Boston University. He was editor in chief of the law review and graduated magna cum laude in 1958. He earned his master of laws from University of Michigan Law School in 1960.

He later was an adjunct professor at BU Law School.

In 1963, he began work as an assistant attorney general under Edward Brooke — the nation’s first black attorney general, who later was elected US senator — and helped draft and win passage of the Massachusetts Truth in Lending Act.

His marriage to his first wife, Linda (Katzen), ended in divorce.

He later married Barbara (Marcus), decades after their first meeting in the 1970s, when she was a 19-year-old BU student searching for a lawyer following a car accident. They reconnected years later, she said.

“He was so handsome, and he was brilliant, with a wonderful sense of humor,’’ Barbara said. “We had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. We were joined at the hip for 25 years.’’

His son, James, who is a lawyer at Swartz & Swartz, recalled his father taking him and his other children around the country as he tried cases.

“He was an incredible family man,’’ said his son, who also lives in the Brookline section of Chestnut Hill.

In the courtroom, Mr. Swartz was a tenacious advocate who fought cases in 38 states. During a case in Atlanta early in his career, he once held out four days demanding an additional $25,000 for a client who suffered brain damage and blindness. He got the money, for a total settlement of $750,000.

“What drove him was a passion to be the best he could be and a voice for people who didn’t have a voice,’’ his son said. “He always really wanted to be that voice, and he happened to be really good at it.’’

Mr. Swartz’s skills made him a millionaire many times over. A 1990 story about him in the Robb Report, titled “Robin Hood, with a Twist,’’ included tales of his Rolls-Royce, his Jaguar, and several mansions. He liked to sail in his yacht Toy Box, and later Gambit, named after the publisher of his first book, “Toys That Don’t Care.’’

“A little piece of me has been left on the courtroom floor of every case I ever tried,’’ Mr. Swartz told the magazine. “The greatest thrill is hearing a jury say ‘You’re right.’ ’’

Alan Cantor, a longtime law partner, said: “He was the best lawyer I’ve ever seen. He put his entire heart and soul into it.’’

He suffered from heart disease for several years but insisted on working, his family said. He recently brokered a $25 million settlement for victims of a gas explosion in Attleboro.

When he lost, he took it hard, Cantor said, recalling Mr. Swartz’s despair when he failed to convince a Worcester jury that a Ford vehicle defect resulted in a woman’s leg being amputated.

Mr. Swartz was pleased with advances in toy safety regulation.

“He achieved a lot of what he was hoping to see — avoid these terrible tragedies,’’ James Swartz said. “He maintained the regulations remained inadequate, but at least there were regulations and standards to discuss now. There was nothing when he first started.’’

In addition to his son and his wife, Mr. Swartz leaves two daughters, Joan Siff of Newton and Sharron Swartz of Los Angeles; a stepdaughter, Laura Schwartz of New York City; two brothers, Frederic and Joseph, both of Newton; four grandsons; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today in Levine Chapel in Brookline. Burial will follow in Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries in West Roxbury.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at

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