Makeover, Trial Lawyer Style

Lisa A. Rickard
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Posted: Aug 23, 2007 12:14 PM
Makeover, Trial Lawyer Style

Last year, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America decided that a few among their ranks had brought disrepute to the trial lawyers' reputation. So they decided to take a stand against the bad actors in their ranks and call for reforms to reduce outrageous lawsuits.

If only.

At last year's meeting, the trial lawyers instead decided the easier solution was a new name: the American Association for Justice, a moniker created to be, in their words, "about what we do, not who we are."

Their game plan isn't just to rename the national organization, but to convince all of the state trial lawyer associations to follow suit. And so far, at least 13 states have voted to replace "trial lawyer" with "association for justice," with several more states reportedly set to make the change.

There's no question that a re-branding effort for the trial bar is necessary. They remain at a nearly all-time low in public opinion polls. Eighty five percent of voters believe frivolous lawsuits are a serious problem; 75 percent believe lawyers benefit most from lawsuits.

But adding the word "justice" to their name doesn't make what some of them do just.

Here are a few of the stories in the news since the trial lawyers began their re-naming campaign:

  • Jin and Soo Chung, owners of Custom Cleaners in Washington, DC, were sued by Roy Pearson, a lawyer and sitting judge, for $67 million (later reduced to $54 million) over a pair of allegedly lost pants. These small business owners had to close one of their three stores as a result of their two-plus years of battle. They won the case; Pearson is appealing.
  • A man in West Virginia is suing McDonald's for $10 million over a drive-thru order mistake. He's allergic to cheese and mistakenly got a cheeseburger. He didn't bother to check the burger before he bit into it. His mother is also suing for reckless endangerment for having to drive him to the hospital.
  • A woman in Michigan is suing the makers of Starburst candies because they don't warn consumers about the dangers of the candies being "too chewy." Her lawyer just wants to make sure others avoid this danger.
  • A New Jersey man is suing Starbucks because his tea was too hot and the Starbucks employee didn't put the lid on right. His wife is also suing for losses due to his injury.
  • Three Kentucky lawyers were ordered to repay $64 million they kept from their 440 clients in a diet drug class action case. Two of the lawyers took some of the money and bought a stake in Curlin, the Kentucky Derby race horse and winner of the Preakness. They continue to seek delays in the case. This month the judge threw them in jail until the trial in January, saying: "In my opinion, not only these three gentlemen are on trial, the whole legal profession is on trial in this case."
  • Wealthy plaintiffs' attorney John O'Quinn of Texas was ordered to repay nearly $36 million to a group of 3,000 women he had represented in a breast implant case nearly eight years ago. Many of the women reportedly have seen little or none of the average $12,000 per woman settlement.

These are but a few of many examples from this year alone of cases where lawyers have willingly added yet another frivolous lawsuit to society, have hurt their own clients, or both.

If the plaintiffs' bar were really serious about their negative reputation, they might spend more time sanctioning their own bad lawyers and working to end frivolous lawsuits, instead of quietly changing their name while defending the status quo.

As for the now world-famous case of the $54 million pants lawsuit, after two-plus years of sleepless nights, more than $100,000 in legal fees and lost revenues (and counting), and being forced to close a store, the national trial lawyers association issued a public statement after the initial judgment for the Chungs, with the headline "Verdict Shows American Civil Justice System Works."