Victimizing victims: Both parties should join in pursuit of predatory lawyers

Consider the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2016. Here we have legislation that would strengthen the prohibition of asbestos imports and further deter usage of the deadly substance. The act in and of itself is not a bad thing, since medical science is well aware of the dangers of asbestos, which were not known when it was used in the past.

Yet, well-intentioned as the bill may be, it does not address today’s most critical asbestos-related hazard.

{mosads}The Alan Reinstein Act does not even mention the damages to those people who, having been victimized with asbestosis or mesothelioma, are now being further victimized by attorneys who milk asbestos litigation for all its worth. These lawyers are shortchanging their clients and padding their fees. But it’s not just a little sneak thievery here and there. Plaintiffs’ lawyers also manipulate claims and even suborn perjury in order to drive up the value of settlements.

It’s something we’ve known about for at least two decades. In 1997, plaintiffs’ firm Baron & Budd unintentionally disclosed an internal memo advising that defendants simply cannot determine if claimants are lying about their exposure to particular asbestos products. It was a sufficiently revelatory event to merit its own Wiki page.

You’d think that such practices would be excoriated and exorcised by the same Congress that is now debating the Reinstein Act. Yet a passel of Democratic lawmakers has provided cover for these lawyers, who happen to be an ongoing funding source for Democrats at every level of government. By ignoring the lawyer problem, the Reinstein Act exacerbates it.

That leaves the problem for the courts to deal with, assuming any of these miscreant practices actually surface during adjudication. In one high-profile case against Garlock Sealing Technologies, North Carolina judge George Hodges reduced the defendant’s liability by 90% because the plaintiff’s lawyers withheld crucial evidence that their clients might have been exposed to other asbestos sources. That evidence would mitigate if not eliminate Garlock’s liability.

Lawyers in such cases allege conflicting times, locations, and levels of asbestosis exposure in order to sue as many companies as they can find. While the plaintiffs do receive some money after years of litigation – or at least their families do, because the victims themselves are often dead by then – the sums pocketed by these law firms as charges to the client can be staggering. The standard contingency fees are just table stakes compared to the amounts they ultimately enjoy.

The importance of the Garlock case should not be underestimated. Other manufacturers are indeed using it to support own cases. Yet the courts can only provide ad hoc remedy to what is ultimately a systemic problem. Courts do not (and should not) make the law. Alas, as far as the actual lawmaking is concerned, the asbestos lawyers are protected by a political lobby that is both omnipresent and deeply entrenched. Amid all the current outcry for campaign finance and against crony capitalism, it seems that Democrats have entered into a pernicious quid pro quo of their own, a quid pro quo that has received but scant attention in the media.

Hopefully, a soon-to-be released film, UnSettled, will finally begin to unravel this veritably conspiratorial web. UnSettled underscores the unethical relationship between lawmakers, lawyers, and clients, in part by following an asbestos case that should have never seen the inside of a court of law. It chronicles the ordeal of a California car dealer dragged through a maze of unrelenting litigation even though asbestos was never found to be present in the dealership’s locale in the first place.

This travesty highlights the extent to which these litigious pirates, disguised as social reformers, imperil all businesses even as they exploit those whose grievances they pretend to redress. True, the odds may not favor Congressional action to better enforce ethical practice and punish unethical practice. How high do the predatory tentacles extend? Think trial lawyer John Edwards, a chum of Baron & Budd founder Fred Budd, who was almost one heartbeat from the Presidency.

Yet it behooves Democrats to join the fight on behalf of people who have been victimized enough. It’s in their own interest. These lawmakers are in bed with sharks, after all. Sooner or later they’re going to get bitten. 

Lincoln Brown in the former host of the Lincoln Brown Radio Show and author of “Go Down Moses: One NGO’s Fight Against Human Trafficking.”

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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