San Diego Union-Tribune
December 15, 1997
Wheel of fortune:
Lawyers get rich from tobacco liability suits
- A list of this century's most influential lawyers would include such
well-known figures as Daniel Webster, Clarence Darrow and Thurgood Marshall.
But it might also include a little known contingency-fee lawyer, Mark E.
Zedell, whose trailblazing work on tobacco liability set the stage for
what promises to be the largest legal payoff in American history.
- In 1983, Zedell took on the seemingly hopeless case of Rose Cippollone,
a chain-smoking New Jersey woman who was dying of lung cancer. Zedell filed
a multimillion-dollar lawsuit on her behalf against the Liggett Group Inc.,
Philip Morris Inc. and Lorillard, makers of the three brands of cigarettes
Cippollone smoked over the course of her life.
- Zedell failed to win a judgment against the deep-pocket cigarette makers
after a decade of trying. But he gained a partial victory when the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that cigarette companies could be sued for conspiracy
to conceal the dangers of smoking.
- Zedell neglected to take advantage of that precedent-setting ruling,
deciding, ultimately, to close the book on the Cippollone lawsuit. But
the high court's ruling on Zedell's case set the stage, a mere five years
later, for a national settlement between the cigarette makers and 40 states,
worth $368.5 billion over 25 years.
- Much as Cippollone eventually became incidental to Zedell's zealous
suit against the cigarette makers -- the lawyer continued to seek his huge
payday eight years after his client died -- smoking "victims" have become
incidental to the national settlement .
- Victims will see little if any of the billions paid out by the tobacco
industry. State treasuries will receive most of the money, which makes
the state attorneys general happy. But the biggest winners are the trial
lawyers who finally have gotten into the cigarette makers' deep pockets.
- Indeed, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Lester Brickman,
a professor at Brandeis University's Cardozo School of Law, testified that,
under terms of the national tobacco settlement, contingency-fee lawyers
stand to reap a whopping $18.6 billion. As Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo.,
observed, "Some of these lawyers will become instant billionaires."
- Unfortunately for Mark Zedell, he won't be one of them. He got out of
tobacco litigation five years too soon. But the lawyer ought to be recognized
for the role he played in the biggest liability litigation in American
history. A bill sponsored by McInnis, which would cap lawyers' fees at
$150 an hour in tobacco cases (rather than, say, the $7,700 an hour that
Florida lawyers are seeking as part of the national settlement) ought be
renamed in Zedell's honor.
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.