On March 7 a California appellate court 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 conspiracy by corrupt plaintiffs’ lawyers. That decision came only three days after a federal judge in New York ruled that a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment against Chevron (CVX) in 2011 was so tainted by bribery and coercion that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a prominent class-action injury lawyer faces mounting woes because of allegations that he faked thousands of damage claims against BP (BP) related to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. When you combine these cases with the criminal convictions several years ago of plaintiffs-bar titans Mel Weiss, Bill Lerach, and Dickie Scruggs—all of whom served time for corrupting the civil justice system—it’s hard to deny that there’s deep dysfunction within a powerful portion of the legal profession that claims to fight corporate abuse on behalf of the little guy.
A look at the Dole ruling illustrates the point. The California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles affirmed dismissal of one of a series of suits filed against Dole, alleging the company’s use of pesticides in Nicaragua left banana workers sterile in the late 1970s. In all, these suits resulted in billions of dollars in judgments against Dole.
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. One supposed victim testified that he was instructed to memorize and repeat phony evidence “like a parrot.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers and law firms are major political contributors, particularly to Democrats
The California appellate court said the trial judge correctly sent the Tellez plaintiffs packing. The ruling was a win for the Los Angeles firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has engineered the negation of multiple pesticide verdicts against Dole. That accomplishment prompted Chevron to hire Gibson Dunn to fight back against a $19 billion oil-contamination judgment imposed by an Ecuadorean court in 2011. In the Chevron case, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of New York ruled on March 4 that plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Donziger turned his Ecuadorean lawsuit against the oil company into a racketeering scheme, complete with extortion, bribery of judges, and fabrication of evidence. Donziger has denied wrongdoing and vowed to appeal.
Mass-tort and class-action securities-fraud suits reached their apogee in the 1990s, fueled in part by the energy and ingenuity of an elite fraternity of plaintiffs’ firms and individual lawyers, some of whom became phenomenally wealthy as a result of their success. There’s nothing necessarily wrong, of course, with plaintiffs’ attorneys doing well along the path to doing good, just as there’s nothing necessarily improper with corporate-defense lawyers getting richly paid.
But as the plaintiffs’ bar achieved lucrative triumphs in asbestos litigation and the tobacco cases, some of its leaders lost their bearings. Scruggs, who earned a fortune in both of those arenas, pleaded guilty in 2008 to crimes related to a judicial bribery scheme. Weiss and Lerach, impresarios of securities-fraud class actions, went to prison for paying kickbacks to shareholder plaintiffs-for-hire. Last year the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the disbarment of Stanley Chesley, a scourge of the pharmaceuticals and chemicals industries, among others. Chesley allegedly sought “unreasonable” fees in the settlement of a diet drug class action against Wyeth, now part of Pfizer (PFE).
Mikal Watts of San Antonio ranks among the nation’s most feared mass-injury lawyers. In the wake of the BP oil spill four years ago, his firm filed some 40,000 claims on behalf of deckhands and others alleging economic harm from the disaster that killed 11 rig workers and sullied the Gulf Coast. Last December, BP hit back, accusing Watts of seeking to shake down the company by filing claims for thousands of “phantom” clients who didn’t fit his description of them or didn’t exist at all. Then, in January, another well-known mass-tort attorney, Danny Becnel of Louisiana, filed a separate suit against Watts on behalf of Vietnamese American fishermen and business owners who say Watts used their names without authorization. Watts last year resigned from the plaintiffs’ steering committee helping to direct the litigation against BP after media reports that federal agents had searched his offices in connection with the phantom-claims scandal. The federal criminal probe is continuing. Watts, a major fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, has denied any wrongdoing—civil or criminal. His lawyers have said all his filings against BP were made in good faith.
Despite the egregiousness of the plaintiffs’ bar abuses, there’s little chance that Congress will enact tort reform anytime soon, says Victor Schwartz, a lobbyist for business on the issue and a partner in Washington with law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon. Plaintiffs’ lawyers and law firms are major political contributors, particularly to Democrats, who have fought attempts to cap settlements in big corporate liability cases and class actions. Lawyers spent about $135 million in 2012 helping to elect Democrats, compared with $56 million for Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. “There have been no major business civil justice victories [in Congress] for almost a decade,” Schwartz says. Likewise, President Obama has shown little interest in taking on attorneys who invested $28 million in his reelection effort in 2012, more than twice what they gave Mitt Romney, according to the center. And bar associations and state attorneys general rarely seek to prosecute litigation fraud, which is expensive to pursue and politically fraught. As a result, says Sherman Joyce, president of the corporate-funded American Tort Reform Association, “too many plaintiffs’ lawyers believe there’s not much risk in filing fraudulent suits.”