Tobacco lawyers' fees are really smokin'

Wednesday, April 8, 1998



  1. BELIEVE IT OR NOT, Florida and Texas have some things in common.

  2. They are both "Southern" states. They both boast some of the largest populations in the country. They both have their state "pride" -- heaps of it, in fact. Despite all that, some Florida plaintiffs' lawyers are trying to do everything they can to keep up with Texas' claim that everything is bigger in the Lone Star State.

  3. A federal district judge in Texas is now trying to decide if five lawyers -- count 'em, five -- are worth $2.3 billion for their work in that state's tobacco settlement. Pretty good pay for only 18 months of work.

  4. While it sounds like an astonishing figure, some plaintiffs' lawyers in Florida are involved in a similar hunt for mega-bucks in the Sunshine State. There the tobacco pot-o-gold totals $2.8 billion. That's enough to pay the wealthy 12 Florida lawyers seeking top dollar in it's tobacco settlement a rate of $7,716 an hour, and that's if they had worked on the case 24 hours a day for the last three years. Compress their work day to the normal eight-hour day most Americans work and it amounts to a whopping $23,148 an hour.

  5. Those payouts, according to Florida plaintiffs' lawyer Fred Levin, should be automatic -- a "slam dunk." But not even Shaq O'Neill or Michael Jordan makes that much an hour.

  6. Calling the award "unconscionable and clearly excessive," Palm Beach Circuit Judge Harold Jeffrey Cohen has denied the lawyers request to collect. And, while some Florida plaintiffs' lawyers representing the state have decided to accept smaller fees, 12 say they want their full cut and are appealing the judge's decision. No ruling is expected for at least several months.

  7. Curiously, such greed is actually embarrassing other trial lawyers, something that most Americans probably would have thought virtually impossible.

  8. Richard D. Hailey, the Indianapolis attorney who heads the 60,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America, says the courts are correct to review "excessive and unreasonable" fees.

  9. However, Florida's attorneys make no apologies for holding out for the mega-bucks. Bob Montgomery of Palm Beach has been quoted as saying, "I did not take a vow of poverty when I was sworn into the Bar, nor did they ask me to."

  10. Sheldon Schlesinger of Fort Lauderdale told The Miami Herald's Tropic Magazine: "if at the end, the result was good, we also saw the potential for some significant fees -- and that's what lawyers like us are all about."

  11. Indeed, it is. Who can doubt that in the end, the Florida tobacco attorneys will pocket an exorbitant amount -- certainly running into the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

  12. It is truly unfortunate that what was supposed to be crusade to improve public health has turned into a symbol of greed. And, that Florida has joined Texas in sending the message that, at least for a handful of lawyers, bigger fees are better, no matter the eventual cost to consumers, taxpayers and all of society.

  13. James Lafferty is a former Associated Press and Philadelphia Daily News reporter, who now writes about legal affairs from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 1998 Bergen Record Corp.

    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.