Only three days after Judge Kaplan’s spectacular ruling in the Chevron/Ecuador case, notes Paul Barrett at Business Week, “a state appellate court in California upheld a trial judge’s finding that what had been billed as a watershed liability verdict against Dole Food over pesticide use in Nicaragua was actually the product of a corrupt conspiracy by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
The case at issue in the March 7 ruling, known as Tellez, went to trial in 2008 and produced a multimillion-dollar verdict for workers. That verdict was thrown out when Dole’s attorneys proved that many of the plaintiffs never worked for the company and weren’t, in fact, sterile. Witnesses and investigators were intimidated in Nicaragua, and plaintiffs were coached to concoct false stories.
Barrett has related pieces here and here. He notes the string of high-profile plaintiff’s lawyers tripped up by unethical conduct — Dickie Scruggs, Bill Lerach, Mel Weiss, Stan Chesley — and observes that the jackpots obtained by the mass tort bar in the 1990s incentivized, when they were not themselves the result of, ethical problems that have taken years to play themselves out. I’ve been on these themes since (and before) my book The Rule of Lawyers, and began tracking the banana pesticide litigation five years ago.
“A federal judge has tripled the damages awarded against two former members of a Pittsburgh law firm and the radiologist they were found to have conspired with to fabricate asbestos claims in West Virginia.” [Chamber-backed WV Record] Many claims based on medical evidence supplied by the radiologist, Dr. Ray Herron, were among those dismissed in 2005 by federal judge Janis Graham Jack in an opinion in which she wrote, “These diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice – they were manufactured for money.” In June 2013 the editorialists of the New York Times hilariously wrote that “there is no persuasive evidence of any significant fraud or abuse” in asbestos claiming.
The New York Times columnist responds to critics of his coverage (earlier here, here, etc.) of the BP Gulf spill claims bonanza:
Until that story [on the silicone breast implant episode], I’d always taken the liberal view of plaintiffs’ lawyers as avenging angels, righting wrongs and helping wrest compensation for people who had been harmed by greedy corporations. …
[Since then] I’ve seen mass torts where the actual plaintiffs get coupons while the lawyers reap millions. Mass torts where the connection between the product and the harm is illusory. Mass torts built on fraud (silicosis). Complex litigation settled for billions even when the government implies that consumers are responsible (Toyota sudden acceleration). I’ve also seen cases where some victims hit the jackpot with a giant jury verdict and other victims come up empty. Or where a corporation really has done harm but pays off the lawyers instead of the victims. Over the years, I’ve thought: There’s got to be a better way.
Read the whole thing [via Ted at Point of Law]
Overlawyered readers are well aware of the sorry history of the fen-phen litigation; those that aren’t are advised to check out Professor Lester Brickman’s summary.
In April 2008, the Diet Drugs MDL district court awarded $567 million the class counsel in that case, basing the award in part on representations by class counsel about future class recovery. A year later, a plaintiff’s attorney requested the court reopen the question of the fee award because the class counsel had exaggerated those estimates. The district court refused, holding that the one-year delay in bringing the Rule 60(b) motion was not a “reasonable time.” There has been an appeal to the Third Circuit, and, today, the Center for Class Action Fairness filed an amicus brief in support of the appeal that itself provides a short overview of the history of the fen-phen MDL. Many thanks to Chris Arfaa for his generous help in filing the brief.
In Mississippi Litigation Review blog, Philip Thomas argues that Kim Strassel’s article (which we discussed Sunday) overemphasizes the role played by U.S. Silica’s CEO. I think that’s more the doing of the WSJ headline writers (which do pitch the story of one guy standing alone against the plaintiffs’ bar) than Strassel; as Thomas himself acknowledges, Ulizio doesn’t try to take undue credit, and Strassel merely (and correctly) notes that lawyers alone couldn’t defeat the silica lawsuits without the support of the business community willing to stand up against the tort bar.
Thomas also objects to Ulizio’s characterization of the victory as “luck,” but luck definitely played a huge role. The scandal came to light solely because Judge Janis Jack held mass Daubert hearings at an abnormally early stage in the litigation. In fact (and I seem to be the only person who has ever made this point), Jack’s ruling was especially abnormal, because she made the Daubert ruling before she made a jurisdictional ruling—and her jurisdictional ruling found that 99% of the cases in front of her lacked complete diversity and needed to be remanded. In other words, Judge Jack’s famous condemnation of plaintiffs’ experts was largely an ultra vires advisory opinion (which is why her sanctions order was for only a couple of thousand dollars).
The luck of the MDL draw had everything to do with that result. Another judge might not have held Daubert hearings at such an early stage; another judge might not have actually applied Daubert even if she had held the hearings; another judge might have preferred to empty her docket immediately, rather than stalling on the eventual remand.
And these aren’t purely hypothetical musings: in the welding fumes MDL in Ohio, there has been plenty of evidence of mass tort fraud, yet the judge has refused to throw out cases, so they slowly continue to proceed to trial.
In that sense, Ulizio is absolutely right: “When you have an entire system that condones these lawsuits, that does nothing to police its own, where there are no consequences, right or wrong has nothing to do with it. It’s a coin flip.” The lawyers who brought these fraudulent cases are still practicing law; thousands of fraudulent mass tort lawsuits continue to be brought since Judge Jack’s ruling without consequence to the unethical lawyers who bring them.
“The first time we ever lost a case in trial, it was 2001. We tried it in Beaumont, Texas, and lost $7.5 million. . . . The judge sat there through the trial reading a newspaper. At one point an objection was made, the bailiff taps him on the shoulder and says ‘judge, objection is being made.’ He looks at our lawyer and says ‘overruled.’ The plaintiffs’ lawyer raises his hand and says ‘no, judge, it was me.’ He says ‘sustained’ and goes back to reading the paper.” …
[U.S. Silica CEO John A.] Ulizio shares a memo that plaintiffs’ lawyer Joe Gibson sent to silica defendants in 2004 with a blunt offer: Settle our 9,000 cases for $900 million, or pay $1.5 billion in pretrial discovery alone, plus an even bigger verdict. “That’s the genius of the economics of litigation from the plaintiffs’ perspective. Sue a lot of people, sue on behalf of a lot of plaintiffs, get into an adverse jurisdiction, and then don’t make too big of a demand, so you can settle it for a relatively small percentage of the cost of defending the case,” Mr. Ulizio says.
Kim Strassel has a must-read account of how U.S. Silica beat a mass-tort fraud attempting to steal its solvency—and did so almost entirely by the luck of the MDL draw, as a different judge might have refused to conduct the hearings that exposed the wrongdoing. (See also Michael Krauss at Point of Law.)
Note that that $900 million proposal for 9000 bogus cases works out to $100,000/case—which is exactly what the Vioxx litigation settled for.
Lester Brickman has a new must-read paper on an under-reported problem:
Lawyers obtain the “mass” for some mass tort litigations by conducting screenings to sign-up potential litigants en masse. These “litigation screenings” have no intended medical benefit. Screenings are mostly held in motels, shopping center parking lots, local union offices and lawyers’ offices. There, an occupational history is taken by persons with no medical training, a doctor may do a cursory physical exam, and medical technicians administer tests, including X-rays, pulmonary function tests, echocardiograms and blood tests. The sole purpose of screenings is to generate “medical” evidence of the existence of an injury to be attributed to exposure to or ingestion of defendants’ products. Usually a handful of doctors (“litigation doctors”) provide the vast majority of the thousands and tens of thousands of medical reports prepared for that litigation.
By my count, approximately 1,500,000 potential litigants have been screened in the asbestos, silica, fen-phen (diet drugs), silicone breast implant, and welding fume litigations. Litigation doctors found that approximately 1,000,000 of those screened had the requisite condition that could qualify for compensation, such as asbestosis, silicosis, moderate mitral or mild aortic value regurgitation or a neurological disorder. I further estimate that lawyers have spent at least $500 million and as much as $1 billion to conduct these litigation screenings, paying litigation doctors and screening companies well in excess of $250 million, and obtaining contingency fees well in excess of $13 billion.
On the basis of the evidence I review in this article, I conclude that approximately 900,000 of the 1,000,000 claims generated were based on “diagnoses” of the type that U.S. District Court Judge Janis Jack, in the silica MDL, found were “manufactured for money.”
Despite the considerable evidence I review that most of the “medical” evidence produced by litigation screenings is at least specious, I find that there is no effective mechanism in the civil justice system for reliably detecting or deterring this claim generation process. Indeed, I demonstrate how the civil justice system erects significant impediments to even exposing the specious claim generation methods used in litigation screenings. Furthermore, I present evidence that bankruptcy courts adjudicating asbestos related bankruptcies have effectively legitimized the use of these litigation screenings. I also present evidence that the criminal justice system has conferred immunity on the litigation doctors and the lawyers that hire them, granting them a special dispensation to advance specious claims.
Finally, I discuss various strategies that need to be adopted to counter this assault on the integrity of the civil justice system.
Another bunch of things not to do if you’re a member of the legal profession.
- Don’t get caught pursuing forged fen-phen claims. (Robert Arledge, Vicksburg, Mississippi, sentenced to 6.5 years, the only lawyer to date to be sentenced in a much larger fen-phen scandal.) [ABA Journal]
- Don’t try to dissuade a witness from testifying at a deposition. (Cleary Gottlieb, which said it would appeal the judge’s order of sanctions.) [WSJ Law Blog]
- Don’t inflate your GPA and include fake awards on your resume. (Gregory Haun, DC, recommended for suspension, resigned his six-digit BigLaw associate job.) [Legal Times]
- Don’t end your jury service by casting a vote to break a deadlock and then sign a statement drafted by the plaintiffs’ attorney asking for a new trial saying that you did so so you can return to work. (California bar has recommended disbarment for Francis Fahy.) [ABA Journal; Recorder ($); Law.com ($)]
- Don’t steal money from your clients by forging their signatures on insurance company releases to get their settlement money. (Richard Boder, New York, caught as part of a larger scandal involving the illegal use of paid runners to bribe hospital employees about auto accident injuries, sentenced to a year in prison.) [NY Law Journal]
- Don’t read Maxim in the courtroom. (Todd Paris, held in contempt by North Carolina judge.) [WSJ Law Blog]
- Don’t have an affair with a judge you’re practicing in front of, or vice versa. (Federal Way, WA, Municipal Court judge Colleen Hartl resigned after bragging about an affair with public defender Sean Cecil, who still has 5 Avvo stars for professional conduct, but has been the subject of a formal complaint to the bar.) [AP/Post-Intelligencer; Federal Way News; Lat]
(Earlier: Nov. 5, etc.)