The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association is in a snit over ads and billboards by the Chamber of Commerce offering such homespun advice as “Please don’t feed the trial lawyers.” The bone of contention is a timely question: Are trial lawyers ripping off the legal system?
The chamber cites a study by business consultants Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, which estimates annual tort costs in West Virginia at $1.6 billion. That works out to $886 per person.
The trial lawyers challenge that figure. “It’s not fair or accurate,” they say, “to include monies spent on litigation. It’s about insurance ... not a cost of litigation.” Say what? If you want to estimate tort system costs, you can’t count the costs of litigation?
WVTLA is countering with cost ads of its own. One shows a hand stuffing cash into a coat pocket, with the caption, “Haven’t the big corporate CEOs taken enough?” But it’s a pretty sophomoric analogy. Corporate CEOs earn their pay from businesses that sell goods and services to voluntary consumers. Trial lawyers take whopping contingent fees from awards that are ordered by courts.
In the latter instance, “take” is the right verb. We recently noted a dandy example in Rhode Island. Lawyers there want paint companies to pay for the “public nuisance” of lead paint on buildings, even if the defendant companies never made or sold one drop of that paint. By contrast, those companies can’t charge for paint they don’t manufacture.
Next door in Connecticut, they’ve been wrangling over fees for lawyers who sued the state for illegally strip-searching some prison inmates. Under a proposed $2.5 million settlement, two plaintiffs would get $20,000 apiece. The rest would get $10,000 apiece. The lawyers who filed the suit want $834,000.
Academic studies have found that plaintiff lawyers sometimes charge $25,000 to $50,000 an hour. Lawyers who handled tobacco lawsuits have collected as much as $200,000 an hour.
Stuart Taylor of the Brookings Institution put lawyer fees in perspective a few years ago: “I have a Toshiba laptop computer,” he said, “with a problem in its floppy disk controller. I am going to get $309.90 if I spend a few hours filling out the legal papers. My lawyer is going to get $147.5 million since there are a few million of us getting the $309.90.”
Fees like that are a rip-off by any measure. In exposing them, the chamber is providing a useful service. Our advice: Keep it up.