Public Justice Announces Finalists for 2016 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award
The five finalist cases for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award include landmark cases dealing with workers’ rights, the horrifying consequences of product defects, America’s money bail system, financial institution funding of terrorism, and civil rights.
The award, which celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered injustice and harmful abuse, will be presented at the organization’s Annual Gala and Awards Dinner on Sunday, July 24 in Los Angeles. Here are the five finalist cases for the award:
Andrews v. Lawrence Livermore National Security
In 2008, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California was taken over by a private company, Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC. LLNS is an LLC dominated by Bechtel Corporation and the University of California. LLNS promised to save the Federal Government $50 million annually. In May of that year, LLNS fired more than 400 of the lab’s most senior workers, including many top scientists and researchers. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, they were given one hour to pack up all their belongings and return their badges before they were ‘perp-walked’ out of the lab. Fired at the height of the 2008 recession, many of those laid off experienced foreclosures, bankruptcies, divorces, depression, and physical symptoms as a direct result of their termination.
130 of these workers filed a consolidated action against the laboratory in May 2009, contending that LLNS’ promise to save the Department of Energy $50 million annually was contingent upon firing many of the laboratory’s oldest and most experienced workers. This stood in direct violation of existing layoff policies that dictated employees should be laid off in reverse order of seniority; the average seniority of those laid off was nearly 20 years.
The team litigated the case for more than seven years in a process that was continually delayed by stalling tactics by the laboratory counsel. Undeterred, counsel for the plaintiffs put in over 25,000 hours in the case, although the defense firm had 200 times the number of lawyers as Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer.
Despite all of the setbacks and delay tactics, the team won a $2.73 million jury verdict for past and future economic loss on claims of breach of contract, and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing for five test plaintiffs as part of a two-phase trial. The team was then able to negotiate a $37.25 million settlement for 129 of the 130 plaintiffs—the equivalent of over three years’ salary for each plaintiff. The defense insisted the settlement be confidential. Plaintiffs’ counsel refused to agree to confidentiality, arguing the public had a right to know how its tax dollars are being spent.
The Andrews case sheds light on how the George W. Bush administration’s decision to privatize a national security laboratory had devastating impacts on workers and the nation’s safety, as decades of knowledge and experience left the lab as a result of the layoffs. The case affected all workers at the Lawrence Livermore lab and approximately 10,000 workers at its sister lab in Los Alamos by establishing standards under which permanent employees can be laid off, hopefully ensuring that no other injustice like this can ever happen at those laboratories again.
Team: Gary Gwilliam, Randall E. Strauss, and Robert J. Schwartz of Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer in Oakland, Calif.; and Omar Habbas of Habbas & Associates in San Jose, Calif.
Fox v. Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson is famous for healthcare and hygiene products, many of which have become staples in American homes. Consumers have come to trust that companies like Johnson & Johnson will alert them if anything about their product is found to be unsafe or potentially harmful. A deadly breach of that trust ultimately led to the death of Jacqueline Fox, who had used two of the company’s feminine hygiene products daily for over 35 years.
Some of Johnson & Johnson’s feminine hygiene products, like Baby Powder and Shower to Shower Body Powder, feature talc as an ingredient, the long-term use of which has been linked to ovarian cancer. Despite evidence that shows J&J knew of the dangerous effects of talc, the company continued to market feminine hygiene products as conducive to good health – even when the supplier providing their talc began to use a warning label on the product.
Evidence from the trial indicates that at least 45,000 women have died over the last 30 years as a direct result of ovarian cancer from the sustained use of talc powder, and that 1,500 more will die in the next year alone. The jury foreman called the internal documents produced by the plaintiff’s team “decisive”, telling Bloomberg “it’s clear [J&J insiders] were hiding something.”
The jury ruled in Fox’s favor in February of 2016, resulting in $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages. Fox’s suit was the first time that a jury had awarded damages related to J&J talc claims, and is important in setting the standard for the 1,200 similar suits J&J is currently facing.
Team: Jere Beasley, Ted G. Meadows, David P. Dearing, Danielle Ward Mason, and Brittany Scott of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles in Montgomery, Ala.; Stephanie Rados, James G. Onder, Michael J. Quillin, and W. Wylie Blair of Onder, Shelton, O’Leary & Peterson, LLC in St. Louis, Mo.; R. Allen Smith, Jr., of The Smith Law Firm in Ridgeland, Miss.; and Russ Abney of Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough in Atlanta, Ga.
Jones (Varden) v. City of Clanton and similar cases
Every night, about 500,000 people sit in jail because they cannot afford to pay a money bail – the largest pretrial detainee population in the recorded history of the world. These detainees are often held for minor, non-violent offenses that they have not yet been tried for, yet they constitute 60 percent of the US jail population and cost counties $9 billion in 2011 alone. Awaiting trial in jail can mean losing a job or a home, and often puts detainees at risk for experiencing violent or unsanitary conditions within jail walls. All of these factors prompt detainees to plead guilty, regardless of whether they committed the crime, in order to get out of jail.
In 2014, Equal Justice Under Law’s Alec Karakatsanis began crafting a set of arguments for what would soon become a very important part of the movement to end money bail practices. He spent weeks preparing his legal templates and figuring out in which jurisdiction to bring the first case. In January, 2015 he found Christy Dawn Varden in a Clanton, Alabama jail cell. Varden, a mother of two, had been waiting for two days on bail for misdemeanor charges.
Karakatsanis interviewed Varden and obtained a handwritten declaration explaining her poverty. He then filed suit in federal court in Montgomery, making Varden the first person to file a systemic challenge to the American money bail system on equal protection and due process grounds since the rise of mass incarceration more than 30 years ago. The next month, the Department of Justice filed a landmark Statement of Interest, agreeing with Equal Justice Under Law’s arguments that keeping a person in jail on a money bail she cannot afford, and without an inquiry into her ability to pay, is unconstitutional.
In the year since Varden’s case, Equal Justice Under Law has been working tirelessly with local counsel and non-profit organizations across many states to challenge money bail systems in the US. Shortly after ending unconstitutional money bail in Clanton through Varden’s case, Karakatsanis and Equal Justice Under Law filed three similar class action suits against unconstitutional poverty jailing through money bail. The suits resulted in the end of money bail for new misdemeanor offenses in three additional cities – Velda City, Mo., Moss Point, Miss., and Ascension Parish, La., as well as confidential compensation for the plaintiffs. Since then, the organization has filed over a dozen additional cases and ended these unconstitutional poverty jailing practices through negotiation in dozens of additional cities.
These cases and the work of a new wave of community activists and lawyers have helped to change the conversation about money bail and pretrial justice all over the country, issues that sit at the intersection of social and economic injustice and predatory corporate and government abuses. Karakatsanis and his team are setting the precedent for a new era of criminal justice reform in the age of mass incarceration.
Team: Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, D.C.; Matthew Swerdlin of Birmingham, Ala.; J. Mitch McGuire of McGuire & Associates in Montgomery, Ala.; William M. Dawson of Dawson Law Office in Birmingham, Ala.; Thomas B. Harvey and Michael-John Voss of ArchCity Defenders in St. Louis, Mo.; Cliff Johnson II and Jacob W. Howard of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in University, Miss., Katie M. Schwartzmann, and Eric A. Foley of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, La.; and William P. Quigley of New Orleans, La.
Linde v. Arab Bank
The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1992 allows people who were injured by acts of terror abroad to bring civil suits in federal court. Linde was a mass tort consolidation case with 117 plaintiffs who were injured in suicide bombings and attacks in Israel, 40 wrongful death cases, along with 440 family members of those injured or killed. The plaintiffs claimed that Arab Bank knowingly provided financial support to terrorist leaders and the families of terrorist operatives, including suicide bombers. This case marks the first time that a financial institution has been brought to trial – and held liable –under the ATA.
The plaintiffs argued that Arab Bank administered a Saudi-funded universal insurance plan for the benefit of Palestinian terrorists killed, injured, or apprehended by Israeli security forces. For years, branches of the Saudi charity authorized payments ranging from $140 to $5,316 to terrorists and their families. The plaintiffs also argued that Arab Bank should be held liable for every terrorist act committed since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, a period of escalated Israeli-Palestinian conflict that began in 2000, because the charity provided its clients with financial benefits regardless of whether they were affiliated with terrorist groups.
Although the Linde case was successful, it took over a decade before the team was able to bring the case to trial. The team overcame many hurdles and even secured sanction against Arab Bank and its defense counsel.
The parties reached a confidential settlement agreement in August of 2015. The lawsuits were aimed at curtailing the flow of money to terrorist organizations by extending the legal liability beyond terrorists themselves to the financial institutions that aid their actions. The outcome of this trial will undoubtedly encourage stronger consequences for corporations that promote terrorism and violate human rights.
Michael E. Elsner, Jodi Westbrook Flowers, and John M. Eubanks of Motley Rice in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.; C. Tab Turner of Turner & Associates in North Little Rock, Ark.; Gary M. Osen, Aaron Schlanger, Ari Ungar, Cindy T. Schlanger, and Naomi Weinberg of Osen LLC in Hackensack, N.J.; Joshua Glatter, formerly of Osen LLC; Mark Werbner of Sayles Werbner in Dallas, TX; Joel Israel, formerly of Sayles Werbner; James Bonner of Stone, Bonner & Rocco in Summit, N.J.; Noel Nudelman, Richard Heideman, and Tracy Reichman Kalik of Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik in Washington, DC; Gavriel Mairone and Ariel Mairone of MM-Law in Chicago, IL; Steven Steingard and Stephen Schwartz of Kohn, Swift & Graf in Philadelphia, Pa.; Shawn Patrick Naunton of Zuckerman Spaeder in New York City; Margaret E. Lynaugh, formerly of Zuckerman Spaeder in New York City; Allan Gerson of AG International Law in Washington, DC, Peter Raven-Hansen of Washington, DC; and Jonathan David of The David Law Firm in The Woodlands, Texas.
Reckis v. Johnson and Johnson
In 2003, seven-year-old Samantha Reckis came down with a fever that her parents treated with over-the-counter Children’s Motrin, a product of Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, McNeil-PPC. After two doses, she developed a rash that spread from her face to her trunk. After several more doses, Samantha’s body was covered in blisters and she was diagnosed with a potentially deadly adverse drug reaction called Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN). The affliction left Samantha legally blind with severe respiratory damage and in need of a lung transplant after seven months in the hospital. She suffered moderate brain damage and was left unable to bear children. When she was discharged, she weighed just 30 pounds.
The Reckis family sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging the company had known, since the 1980s, that Motrin and other ibuprofen-based products were causally linked to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and TEN, the latter of which has a 40% mortality rate and almost always leads to blindness and other severe life-long ailments.
The trial team prepared the case over many years, travelling to seven states to obtain depositions. They helped three PhDs and several MDs prepare hundreds of pages of answers to expert interrogatories. While the defense team brought in more than a dozen lawyers and over twenty paralegals, the Reckis family was represented by a single firm at trial. The jury awarded Samantha and her family $63 million, with the Court entering a judgment that totaled over $112 million when the relief became effective after three years of appeals. Those appeals focused largely on federal preemption.
The Reckis case is a prime example of a giant, global pharmaceutical company attempting to exercise its extraordinary might against a seven-year-old girl and her desperately poor family. But the team representing Samantha and her family stood up, fought back and proved that Johnson & Johnson had hidden crucial data about one of its highest-selling drugs for over thirty years.
Team: Bradley M. Henry, Leo V. Boyle, Michael B. Bogdanow, Catherine M. Croteau, Alexandra Buckingham, and Nora Carroll of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow in Boston, Mass.; and Robert S. Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation in Washington, DC.