For more than 30 years, big business has whined about class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of consumers, workers and shareholders. The Republican Party made plaintiffs’ lawyers one of its favorite bogeymen and “tort reform” a centerpiece of its policy agenda. John McCain carries on this dubious tradition, suggesting for example that putting limits on medical malpractice suits is a key element of healthcare reform.
Whether or not there ever was a real plethora of frivolous lawsuits, one fact is now undeniable: the plaintiffs’ bar is in disarray. Part of the reason is that conservatives succeeded in getting numerous state legislatures to impose restrictions on class-action lawsuits and individual damage cases. Yet perhaps more dramatic has been the spectacular demise in recent months of the country’s leading trial lawyers through personal legal entanglements.
The conventional wisdom is that these super lawyers were victims of their own greed, while conspiracy theorists might wonder how these giant killers were brought down in such short order. In any event, there have certainly been sighs or relief—if not spasms of schadenfreude—in boardrooms across America.
The most recent crusader to fall was Melvyn Weiss, who built a career filing lawsuits charging that companies had defrauded investors. In March, Weiss agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges, acknowledging his role in making millions of dollars in secret side payments to plaintiffs in class actions filed by his firm Milberg Weiss. He consented to $10 million in fines and forfeiture, and last week prosecutors proposed that he spend up to 33 months in prison.
Weiss’s former partner, the even more flamboyant William S. Lerach, entered a guilty plea last fall on similar federal charges. In February he was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to forfeit $7.75 million. That was a small fraction of the several hundred million dollars in fees Lerach and his partners earned from scores of cases involving many billion dollars in settlements and awards from the likes of Enron and WorldCom as well as many less venal corporations.
In March, another larger-than-life trial lawyer, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, filed a guilty plea in the face of allegations that he and others bribed a judge in Mississippi who was hearing a case involving a dispute over $26 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of insurance claims brought by victims of Hurricane Katrina. Scruggs is best known for his role in winning a $200 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
There was never any doubt that Weiss, Lerach and Scruggs were motivated by personal enrichment at least as much as their quest for justice. Yet in the absence of adequate government regulation of business, their lawsuits served as a countervailing force against the power of big business. Now that they have been neutralized, what corporate abuses will go unchallenged?