What “Greedy” Trial Lawyers and “Frivolous” Litigation Do

What “Greedy” Trial Lawyers and “Frivolous” Litigation Do

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By Arthur Bryant

Corporate America loves to trash trial lawyers because trial lawyers hold them accountable – when they break the law, cheat people, sell defective products, discriminate, mistreat workers, poison the water and air or maximize profit over safety and lives. We celebrate the work they do to make our country more just. This year’s finalists for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award are the latest examples. The Award honors the verdict or settlement that made the biggest contribution to the public interest in the past year.

Bookout v. Toyota

When thousands of Toyota Camrys were suddenly accelerating, the company blamed floor mats, bad drivers, and sticky pedals. But the real problem was Toyota’s conduct: the Camry’s electronic throttle system was poorly designed and did not conform to industry standards. When Jean Bookout’s Camry suddenly accelerated in September 2007 and crashed, she was injured and passenger Barbara Schwarz died.

Bookout v. Toyota Motor Corp. was the first suit to go to trial against Toyota tying sudden unintended acceleration to electronic throttle control problems. A team of trial lawyers —Jere L. Beasley, J. Cole Portis, R. Graham Esdale, and Benjamin E. Baker of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C. in Montgomery, AL, with assistance from Larry Tawwater of The Tawwater Law Firm in Oklahoma City, OK, and Paul Martin of Martin Jean Jackson in Ponca City, OK — won a $3 million compensatory damages jury verdict. Toyota settled before the jury could determine the amount of punitive damages. Then it settled the hundreds of other personal injury and wrongful death cases pending nationwide.

In Re Toyota

In addition to injuring and killing passengers and drivers, Toyota’s defective electronic throttle system endangered and caused economic harm to a huge number of Toyota owners. As the public became more aware of the sudden acceleration problems, the value of Toyota cars plummeted.

Class actions were filed across the country. Many were consolidated in federal court in Los Angeles, and four attorneys played critical lead roles in the litigation: Steve W. Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP in Seattle, WA, Marc M. Seltzer of Susman Godfrey LLP in Los Angeles, CA, Frank M. Pitre of Pitre, Cotchett & McCarthy in Burlingame, CA, and Mark P. Robinson. Jr. of Robinson Calcagnie Robinson Shapiro Davis of Newport Beach, CA. After more than three years of intense work, including questioning scores of witnesses under oath, poring over thousands of documents, and examining millions of lines of software code, these lawyers and their firms won a $1.6 billion settlement that will benefit approximately 22 million Toyota owners. Under the settlement, the largest involving defective autos in history, 16 million owners will have key parts related to unintended acceleration covered under warranty, $250 million will compensate owners forced to sell their vehicles at a loss, and $250 million will compensate owners who are not eligible for the safety upgrades available to other class members. Toyota will also pay $30 million to fund automotive safety research and driver education.

Melton v. General Motors

After Brooke Melton noticed serious problems with her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, including the engine shutting off while she was driving, she took her vehicle to the local dealership. A day after she picked it up, her Cobalt suddenly lost power, veered into oncoming traffic, was struck by another vehicle, and rolled into a creek. Melton did not survive.

At the request of Melton’s parents, Lance Cooper of The Cooper Firm, a sole practitioner in Marietta, GA, launched an investigation into her death. When Cooper initially filed Melton v. General Motors, he believed the accident was caused by a defect related to a power-steering recall issued by GM one week earlier. But Cooper and the experts he hired determined that the real cause was a defective ignition switch — a defective ignition switch now famous nationwide. Cooper showed that GM had known about the deadly switch long before the accident. He exposed a corporate cover-up and inadequate federal regulation, leading to a Congressional investigation, a large settlement for the Melton family, and GM recalling over 2.5 million cars.

People of California v. Atlantic Richfield

In California, tens of thousands of children each year have blood lead levels that exceed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threshold, which cause brain damage and developmental disabilities. There is virtual unanimity in the medical and scientific community that the primary cause of lead poisoning in children is the lead paint in their homes. The only way to prevent it is to remove or remediate the paint. Until that happens, the poisoning and suffering will not end. In 2009 alone, 10,875 children — many low-income, minority children — were poisoned in just 10 California cities and counties.

In 2000, these cities and counties sued several of the country’s largest lead pigment manufacturers for promoting the use of lead paint in homes for decades before it was banned in 1978, even though its danger to children had been known since the early 1900s. The lawsuit, People of California v. Atlantic Richfield, charged that lead paint in homes is a public nuisance that has to be removed. The local governments sought help from a team of plaintiffs’ attorneys led by (in alphabetical order) Mary Alexander of Mary Alexander & Associates in San Francisco, CA, Joseph W. Cotchett and Nancy L. Fineman of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, CA, Peter Earle of the Law Office of Peter Earle in Milwaukee, WI, and Fidelma Fitzpatrick of Motley Rice in Providence, RI. After a 13-year odyssey that culminated in a seven-week trial, the team – including over 20 other lawyers from these firms and the governments of Alameda County, Los Angeles County, Monterey County, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo County, the County of Santa Clara, Solano County, and Ventura County – won a landmark ruling that ConAgra, NL Industries and Sherwin-Williams created a public nuisance and had to pay $1.15 billion into a state-run abatement fund to fund inspections and lead paint removal in tens of thousands of homes.

State of New Hampshire v. Hess Corporation, et al.

For nearly 20 years, ExxonMobil and other oil companies added MTBE (short for methyl tertiary butyl ether) to gasoline sold throughout the country. The oil companies knew, among other things, that MTBE caused cancer in rodents and that it posed a specific threat of contaminating New Hampshire’s aquifers and groundwater because of the state’s sensitive hydrogeology. Rather than disclose the health and environmental risks to government officials, the oil companies told them and the public that gasoline with MTBE was as safe as any other gasoline, and used the additive. As a result, over 40,000 private drinking wells in New Hampshire were contaminated with MTBE, over 5,000 of which were higher than the state’s maximum contaminant level.

For nearly a decade, litigators pursued justice for the state in New Hampshire v. Hess Corporation et al., a groundwater contamination case against 23 oil companies, including the single biggest MTBE-laced gas supplier, ExxonMobil. After all but two of the companies settled, lead counsel Jessica L. Grant of Venable LLP in San Francisco, CA, working closely with Sean Kiley of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass and Krishna Juvvadi, formerly of Sher Leff LLP, in San Francisco, CA, as well as attorneys from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, tried the groundwater contamination case against ExxonMobil and Citgo. After a three-month trial, the largest and most complex in New Hampshire history, the team won a record-setting $816 million jury verdict — every penny sought — which will cover cleanup costs and pay for testing and monitoring of every private well and public drinking water system in the state. 

Why This is Important

These are just five examples from the past year, but there are thousands more, each and every year. Here are just a few examples from last year and the years before.

The finalists for the 2014 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award will be honored and the winner will be announced at Public Justice’s Annual Gala, during the Annual Convention of the American Association for Justice, on July 27 in Baltimore, MD.

We laud these lawyers because they accomplished great things and took great risks to fight against injustice. Unlike corporate attorneys, who are paid no matter whether they win or lose, trial lawyers only get paid if they succeed in bringing people or corporations to justice.

Companies willing to value profits over people have to be held accountable – and deterred from doing it in the future. That’s what trial lawyers and litigation do. 

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