March 1, 2010
Erichson & Zipursky on mass settlements
Benjamin Zipursky and I have completed a paper entitled "Consent versus Closure." Ben is one of the nation's leading experts on torts and legal theory. He and I have long shared an interest in mass tort litigation, and we share certain concerns about the direction mass tort settlements seem to be heading. In particular, we were both troubled by the mandatory withdrawal provision of the Vioxx settlement, and we both opposed the American Law Institute's proposal to permit advance consent to aggregate settlements. More generally, we see the Vioxx deal and the ALI proposal as part of a troubling broader trend, in both practice and scholarship, toward embracing the pursuit of absolute closure by empowering plaintiffs' lawyers to deliver their clients' claims in settlement. Here's the abstract:
Claimants, defendants, courts, and counsel are understandably frustrated by the difficulty of resolving mass tort cases. Defendants demand closure, but class certification has proved elusive and non-class settlements require individual consent. Lawyers and scholars have been drawn to strategies that solve the problem by empowering plaintiffs’ counsel to negotiate package deals that effectively sidestep individual consent. In the massive Vioxx settlement, the parties achieved closure by including terms that made it unrealistic for any claimant to decline. The American Law Institute’s Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation offers another path to closure: it proposes to permit clients to consent in advance to be bound by a settlement with a supermajority vote. This article argues that, despite their appeal, both of these strategies must be rejected. Lawyer empowerment strategies render settlements illegitimate when they rely on inauthentic consent or place lawyers in the untenable position of allocating funds among bound clients. Consent, not closure, is the touchstone of legitimacy in mass tort settlements.
"Consent versus Closure" critiques mandatory withdrawal, looking at specific legal ethics rules and doctrines as well as the more basic problem of inauthentic consent. It critiques the ALI's advance consent proposal based not only on the problem of inauthentic consent, but also the problem of nonconsentable conflicts, exploring what it means for claimants to own their claims and for lawyers to represent clients in pursuing those claims.
This article picks up on the theme of "The Trouble with All-or-Nothing Settlements," in which I used six case studies to show various problems caused by demands for fully comprehensive settlements outside of class actions and bankruptcy.
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