The Richmond Times Dispatch
December 10, 1997


BYLINE: Cox News Service

  1. In a stinging rebuke, the nation's leading trial lawyers association yesterday criticized a group of Florida attorneys for seeking excessive legal fees from the $ 11 billion settlement between cigarette makers and the state.

  2. But Palm Beach attorney Robert Montgomery, the lawyer who is the subject of the criticism, said, "I really don't give a damn what the [association] says."

  3. A letter from Richard D. Hailey, president of the 60,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America, to Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts and intellectual property, comes on the eve of congressional hearings today on attorneys' fees in tobacco settlements.

  4. The panel plans to look both at state settlements reached in Florida and Mississippi and at a comprehensive agreement this summer between the tobacco companies and a group of state attorneys general.

  5. "Common sense suggests that a one billion dollar fee is excessive and unreasonable and certainly should invite the scrutiny that the Florida court is giving it in the tobacco litigation," the letter said.

  6. Hailey noted that the association "generally refrains from expressing an institutional opinion regarding a particular fee in a particular case, but we have a strong negative reaction to reports that at least one attorney on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Florida case is seeking a fee in excess of one billion dollars."

  7. In an interview, Hailey said he was specifically referring to Montgomery, who along with four other lawyers has rejected having fees set by an arbitration panel and sought to enforce the state's contract promising legal fees of 25 percent of the state's winnings.

  8. The lawyers have indicated that they would accept a fourth of the "present value" of the settlement - estimated to be about $ 5 billion - or fees of about $ 1.25 billion split among 11 law firms.

  9. Hailey said he has no quarrel with the lawyers' legal or ethical position, but is worried that their claim could be used as ammunition by lawmakers particularly Republicans - eager to rein in attorneys' fees when Congress considers tort reform bills next year.

  10. "Mr. Montgomery is saying . . . 'a deal is a deal,' " Hailey said, referring to the attorneys' contract with the state. "On the one hand, you have to have some legal sympathy for his position.

  11. "On the other hand, to keep this from turning into the public relations disaster of the century . . . I don't want the tort reform battle on Capitol Hill to be about one billion dollar attorneys' fees.

  12. "These hearings are not about substance, they're about perception," Hailey said. "This is round one of the political year of 'let's knock Democrats and trial lawyers.' They pick out the anecdote which would appear to be on the boundary of the acceptable and paint the whole system with that brush."

  13. Montgomery, who is an ATLA member, chided its leaders for "being scared about Congress tinkering with attorneys' fees."

  14. Montgomery, who has indicated he plans to donate some of his fee to charitable arts organizations, said he has never asked for a $ 1 billion fee and reiterated that the fee would be divided among the 11 firms in the case.

  15. "I want to be paid according to the contract," he said. "When did it become excessive? It sure didn't become excessive when we took all of the risk and we put up all of the money."

  16. Noting that state law allows attorneys contingency fees of up to 30 percent, Montgomery said that if state officials feel a 25 percent fee is unreasonable, they should negotiate with him.

  17. "Have the governor tell me what a reasonable fee would be and let's sit down and negotiate this," he said.

  18. Bruce Rogow, one of Montgomery's attorneys, suggested that the larger issue to be determined is not the extent of the fees, but the trustworthiness of state officials.

This is a page in the section entitled Lawyers Make Billions at Expense of Sick and Dying Smokers in the Web site entitled Legal Reform Through Transforming the Discipline of Law into a Science.