When corporations or the government value money over lives and safety, injure people, or discriminate against them, the courts are where they can be held accountable. But corporate and government wrongdoers don’t want to be held accountable.
That’s why, for decades, they’ve been waging a massive propaganda campaign to demonize trial lawyers, litigation, juries, and our system of justice. They’re trying to poison public perception by attaching toxic adjectives to everything that could make them pay. They attack “greedy” trial lawyers, “frivolous” lawsuits, “runaway” juries, and “jackpot” justice— and call our legal system a “lottery”—because they don’t want justice to be done.
Each year, Public Justice counters this self-serving, corporate PR campaign by making sure people know the truth. We recognize the lawyers who made the greatest contribution to the public good by trying or settling a case as finalists for our nationally-prestigious Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. This year’s finalists, listed alphabetically by case name below, will be honored—and the winner will be announced—at Public Justice’s 34th Annual Gala & Awards Dinneron Sunday, July 24, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Their cases show what trial lawyers and lawsuits can do — and why they’re really being attacked.
Andrews v. Lawrence Livermore National Security
In 2008, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was taken over by a private company, Lawrence Livermore National Security (LLNS), controlled by the Bechtel Corporation and the University of California. LLNS promised to save the federal government $50 million annually. To do so, it then fired more than 400 of the lab’s most senior workers, including many top scientists and researchers. It gave them one hour to pack up their belongings and return their badges before they were “perp-walked” out of the lab.
Gary Gwilliam and his team at Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer and Omar Habbas of Habbas & Associates would not let this stand. They sued on behalf of 130 workers, litigated for more than seven years, and won a $2,728,327 jury verdict for breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing for five test plaintiffs. They then negotiated a $37.25 million settlement for 129 of the 130 plaintiffs—the equivalent of over three years’ salary for each. When the defendants insisted that the settlement be confidential, the plaintiffs’ counsel refused—because the public had a right to know the disastrous effects of the government’s attempt to privatize a national lab.
Fox v. Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is famous for its healthcare and hygiene products, which have become staples in American homes. Consumers trust that J&J will ensure that its products are safe and alert them to any potential dangers it knows. A deadly breach of that trust led to the death of Jacqueline Fox, who used two of the company’s talc-based feminine hygiene products—J&J’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower Body Powder—daily for over 35 years.
Jere Beasley and his colleagues at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, along with attorneys from Onder, Shelton, O’Leary & Peterson, LLC, The Smith Law Firm; and Ferrer, Poirot & Wansbrough proved J&J knew that long-term use of talc had been linked to ovarian cancer, but never disclosed that fact—even after the company’s talc supplier began warning of its dangers. In the first case holding the company liable for talc-caused injuries, the jury awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages. The case laid the groundwork for the 1,200 similar suits J&J is currently facing.
Jones (Varden) v. City of Clanton and similar cases
Every night in America, about 500,000 people sit in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail—the largest pretrial detainee population in the recorded history of the world. These detainees, who have not been tried yet and are often held for minor, non-violent offenses, constitute 60 percent of the U.S. jail population and cost counties $9 billion in 2011 alone. While they’re held, they can lose their jobs or homes, be beaten or attacked, or simply fall prey to unsanitary and depressing conditions. So many plead guilty, regardless of whether they committed the crime, just to get out and go home.
Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, DC, along with counsel from Dawson Law Office, McGuire & Associates, ArchCity Defenders, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and William P. Quigley used litigation to start ending this practice. In a series of lawsuits first filed on behalf of Christy Dawn Varden, a mother of two held in jail because she could not afford to pay bail, they argued that keeping a person in jail because she could not pay bail—without an inquiry into her ability to pay—was unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed. Their lawsuits stopped unconstitutional poverty jailing practices in Clanton, AL; Ascension Parish, LA; Velda City, MO; Moss Point, MS; Similar lawsuits have been filed in dozens of other cities.
Linde v. Arab Bank
The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 1990 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, and 440 family members of those injured or killed. The plaintiffs charged 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.
Michael E. Elsner and two of his colleagues at Motley Rice, C. Tab Turner of Turner & Associates, and lawyers from Osen LLC; Sayles Werbner;Stone, Bonner & Rocco; Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik; MM-Law; Kohn, Swift & Graf; Zuckerman Spaeder; AG International Law; and Peter Raven-Hansen worked for over a decade to bring the case to trial. In September 2014, a federal jury held Arab Bank liable. In August 2015, three days before the trial on damages was supposed to start, the parties reached a confidential settlement. This is the first case to hold a financial institution liable under the ATA. It and related cases aim to curtail the flow of money to terrorist organizations by holding financial institutions that aid them responsible.
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, made by J&J 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 and in need of a lung transplant. She suffered moderate brain damage and was left unable to bear children. When she was discharged, she weighed just 30 pounds.
Bradley M. Henry and his co-counsel at Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, along with Robert S. Peckof the Center for Constitutional Litigation, helped the Reckis family get justice. They sued J&J, proving the company had known since the 1980s—and failed to warn customers—that Motrin and other ibuprofen-based products were causally linked to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a life-threatening skin condition, and TEN, which has a 40% mortality rate and almost always leads to blindness and other severe life-long ailments. The jury awarded Samantha and her family $63 million, which grew to $112 million over three years as J&J fruitlessly appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Public Justice honors these lawyers because of their extraordinary work fighting injustice, taking great risks (trial lawyers don’t recover any fees unless they win), and accomplishing great things. The short paragraphs above are just summaries of these teams’ incredible work. Fore more details, including the names of all the finalists, click here.
But let’s be clear. These cases exemplify what lawsuits and trial lawyers do. That’s why Corporate America and irresponsible public officials keep talking about “frivolous” lawsuits and “greedy” trial lawyers. It’s a lot easier than talking about their outrageous misconduct, their fear of liability, and their hope for immunity for their wrongdoing.
Don’t let them get away with it. Share this with others. Spread the word.
The problem isn’t “frivolous” lawsuits or “greedy” trial lawyers. The problem is the injustice we need lawsuits and trial lawyers to expose, remedy, and prevent.
This blog originally appeared on Public Justice on June 13, 20016. Reprinted with permission.
Arthur H. Bryant, Chairman of Public Justice, has won major victories and established new precedents in several areas of the law, including constitutional law, toxic torts, civil rights, consumer protection, and mass torts. The National Law Journal has twice named him one of the 100 Most Influential Attorneys in America.