Watch what you say about lawyers dept.: The high-profile mass tort firm of Napoli Bern Ripka and Associates LLP recently filed a defamation suit in Suffolk County, N.Y. against ex-client Scott Spielberg, a former cab driver who lives in Nevada.
The firm claims that Mr. Spielberg defamed the firm when he wrote to the office of the Manhattan district attorney asking prosecutors to open an investigation into what Mr. Spielberg alleges is the firm’s mishandling of earlier litigation involving the diet drug fen-phen.
The lawsuit also claims that Mr. Spielberg slandered the firm in conversations he had with a New York Times reporter, Anthony DePalma, who wrote a lengthy article about the involvement of a name partner at the firm, Paul Napoli, in the fen-phen litigation.
Yet, Mr. DePalma’s article doesn’t quote Mr. Spielberg or mention him at all. Napoli Bern is representing the vast majority of thousands of ground zero workers in their suits alleging that the city failed to protect them from toxins at the site that have caused respiratory and other illnesses. …
“They don’t want me to be able to talk to the press or law enforcement,” Mr. Spielberg said of the suit against him.
(Joseph Goldstein, “Seeking To Cut Off Criticism, Law Firm Sues Former Client”, New York Sun, Jun. 6).
In Sunday’s Times reporter Anthony DePalma takes a much-needed look at attorney Paul Napoli and his Napoli Bern law firm, which is now representing thousands of plaintiffs claiming injury from 9/11 dust inhalation and before that made its name in the fen-phen litigation. Among the controversies that have trailed it to the present day from that affair: charges that it divvied up settlements in a way favorable to its own fee interests, and that it used unreliable “echo mill” expert reports from echocardiologists attesting injury to fen-phen claimants. Prof. Lester Brickman, friend of this site, is quoted extensively. See our extensive earlier coverage at Overlawyered: Dec. 16, 2002, Sept. 21, 2003, etc. (echo mills); Dec. 28, 2001, Feb. 14, 2005, and Mar. 29, 2007 (settlement practices); Feb. 25, 2008 (broad net cast in 9/11 suits)(cross-posted from Point of Law).
We’ve recently discussed the Kentucky fen-phen scandal, in which the plaintiffs’ lawyers are accused of stealing tens of millions of dollars from their clients; there’s another brewing scandal involving fen-phen lawyers in New York.
Napoli Kaiser Bern (now known as Napoli Bern) represented more than 5,000 plaintiffs who had opted out of the larger class action suit against manufacturer AHP; a whistleblower, or disgruntled ex-employee (take your pick) alleged that Napoli Bern manipulated the amounts of the settlement to be paid to each plaintiff — giving more to its own direct clients — so that Napoli could maximize its own profits at the expense of other law firms.
More important is the allegation that Napoli Bern lied to its clients (and to its own expert witness on ethics) in making them think that the amounts allocated to each plaintiff had been determined by AHP and reviewed by a special master appointed by the court; in fact, it appears that Napoli Bern may have decided unilaterally how much to offer each plaintiff. Yesterday, a New York state judge ruled that the allegations had sufficient merit to reopen the settlement and send the allegations against Napoli Bern to trial.
The stakes are high here; the total amount of this settlement — confidential, but reportedly at least a billion dollars — is not at issue, but the distribution of that money among the lawyers and plaintiffs is. As the judge noted, in theory the penalty could be as severe as requiring Napoli Bern to forfeit all fees earned in the case. (Isn’t mass tort litigation fun? Billions of dollars of Other People’s Money floating around, waiting for lawyers to figure out how to distribute it.)
(Previously covered on Overlawyered: Feb. 2005, Dec. 2001)
Parker & Waichman referred fen-phen cases to Napoli Bern; Napoli Bern negotiated a fen-phen settlement with the manufacturer. Now, Parker & Waichman is charging that Napoli Bern’s lump-sum settlement was distributed in such a way to favor Napoli Bern’s direct clients, thus increasing the total attorney fee take for Napoli Bern and decreasing the amount it would have to share with referring law firms. Napoli Bern denies the allegations. (Jonathan Glater, “When Law Firms Collide, Things Sometimes Get Ugly”, NY Times, Feb. 12) (via Bashman). Previous coverage: Dec. 28, 2001.