THE BLOG

GOP, Media Positioning Victims' Attys as '1%ers'

02/13/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Last Summer, I posted about Democrats being tone-deaf about veterans and asbestos reform issues, and now I'm afraid we are equally tone deaf as Republicans combine the Sheldon Silver arrest scandal, a few high-profile cases and their control of congress to position victims' attorneys as predatory "1 percenters."

When you connect some dots, it's easy to see the positioning trend.

The Wall Street Journal opinion pages usually offer next-gen GOP talking points, and a recent Kimberly Strassel column not only urged tort reformers to focus on the New York Assembly speaker's scandal, but offered the backgrounder: "... Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs..."

But it is not just the WSJ. The New York Times reported that "for plaintiffs' lawyers, mesothelioma patients are a bonanza, worth $1.5 million to $2 million on average per case, according to legal experts; individual cases can yield much more. The hunger for these clients is evident to anyone who has watched late-night cable television and seen the garish ads aimed at those afflicted with the disease."

Money for cancer victims is a "bonanza"? The NYT also noted that "... the law practice has supported an opulent lifestyle for the firm's founders. Mr. Weitz, for instance, owns a seven-bedroom, nine-and-a-half-bathroom home on 509 acres just outside Aspen, Colo."

There is nothing subtle about that subtext. Asbestos litigation is a $10 billion per year industry, with some $2 billion going to plaintiff firms, so it's not like there's no money in the high-risk job of suing corporate America.

Next we see media drawing a line to the "political money" dot, like this from the New York Observer, which found that "... over the last two [election] cycles, members of the [Weitz] law firm has [sic] given at least $600,000 to federal candidates, with over 99% of that going to Democrats. The top three recipients in 2013-2014 included Harry Reid ($44,400), Bruce Braley ($39,675) and Kay Hagan ($10,050); in 2011-2012, the top three were Barack Obama ($29,421), Heidi Heitkamp ($22,400) and Mazie Hirono ($22,400). The top ten recipients in both cycles were all Democrats."

Of course, the blotch-size dot that dominated a congressional hearing last week is the North Carolina bankruptcy of Garlock Sealing Technologies, where, as Reuters reported "[the judge] found what he called a 'startling pattern' of abuse by plaintiffs' lawyers [and] may have shifted the landscape of asbestos litigation with a ruling in favor of manufacturers." And the National Law Journal reports that insurance companies argue that "this court's opinion suggests pervasive fraud on the part of asbestos claimants and their counsel."

That case has even brought a civil RICO lawsuit from Garlock against the firms that sued them. That suit names a Who's Who of asbestos firms: Belluck & Fox and Shein Law Center in Philadelphia; and Simon Greenstone and Waters & Kraus in Dallas. All are well-known contributors to the Democratic Party and have remained dismissive of the lawsuit allegations.

In a Texas Lawyer magazine story, David Greenstone, a partner in Simon Greenstone, made the comment that the RICO claims are all about Garlock saving money, adding that "... it's interesting to note that they have only sued the firms that were the most successful against them in the tort litigation."

That might explain why Newport News, Virginia is suddenly on the national asbestos-reform map. A national tort reform group, the American Tort Reform Association, claims Virginia asbestos plaintiffs enjoy an 85 percent trial success rate, the highest in the country. Lawyers Weekly cited ATRA in saying "... the dubious distinction stems primarily from the use of admiralty law and its relaxed standard of causation for asbestos cases, many of which are filed in Newport News Circuit Court."

The issue even warranted an op-ed from ATRA President Sherman "Tiger" Joyce in the local paper, which drew an immediate demand for an apology from Robert Hatten, probably the most politically connected asbestos attorney in the region.

It's not like the plaintiff firm's link to Democrats is classified. Anyone who knows about the money-tracking OpenSecrets.org, for example, can discover that Hatten and his fellow attorneys at the firm have funneled more than a half-million dollars to Democratic causes, including his personal contributions of tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

And the company sued in the case that set the Newport News use of admiralty law? Garlock Sealing.

As the Strassel's talking-points-to-be make clear, the GOP had momentum even before Speaker Silver's arrest. Now, as Garlock gains national attention, connecting the dots has become more like ricochet - at this rate, we'll soon be spelling it RICOchet.