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New York Times Magazine: Trial lawyers competing for BP cash

The cover story in the latest New York Times Magazine is "The Other Oil Cleanup," in which Texas trial lawyer Tony Buzbee is the peg to tell the story of competition among the plaintiffs' bar for a piece of the litigation against BP.

The author, Douglas McCollam, a contributing editor for the Columbia Journalism Review and The American Lawyer, then explores the role of trial lawyerdom in today's economy and legal system.

The BP disaster comes at a pivotal juncture for the American trial bar. In many respects its power and influence hit its zenith in the late 1990s, when a coalition suing the tobacco industry on behalf of 46 states reached a landmark $206 billion settlement in a case that both fundamentally altered the public's perception of cigarette smoking and made billionaires out of several of the lawyers involved. That settlement led to predictions, both dire and hopeful, that the trial bar would use its newfound financial clout to go after a host of other industries, transforming the face of American capitalism.

Instead, the plaintiffs' bar has seen setbacks in Congress, state legislatures, the courts and most importantly, public opinion. And then, a new model of addressing liability in disasters arises: Kennth Feinberg and compensation funds.

The Feinberg fund represents an alternative model for the resolution of big disasters, one that moves trial lawyers from center stage to a spot in the chorus. Over the last few decades the trial bar has built what amounts to a private-enterprise regulatory machine, compiling an impressive string of victories over -- or at least a series of large settlements from -- the most powerful corporations in the world. Some call them parasites and label their style of litigation the "American disease." Others see them as the last truly effective check on corporate power left in the U.S. system. With the Feinberg model comes the prospect of their further diminishment, a blueprint for a future without big-time trial lawyers. And they are not willing to accept that future without a fight.

It's an excellent piece, with a lot of detail about the Multidistrict Litigation process, including a judicial panel's July meeting in Boise, Idaho, that featured the nation's major trial lawyers pleading their case as to jurisdictions and the makeup of the steering panel. Judging by the scope and detail of the reporting, McCollam must have a book in the works.

The American Association for Justice issued a statement in reaction to the article: Buzbee is not a member of AAJ "nor does he represent the interests of the trial bar," and asserting that only trial lawyers can hold BP accountable, and we mean it!

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.