Tuesday, February 28, 2012
You don't need the Mass Tort Litigation Blog to tell you that the imminent BP trial has been stayed pending settlement talks. In the meantime, here are some thoughts from the ever relevant George Conk. Special shout out for his poetic references: Diving Into the Wreck: BP and Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf.
I was just at a wonderful conference at the Charleston School of Law on Mass Torts and the Federal Courts where Feinberg spoke. One of the key questions at the conference is the extent to which claims facilities (BP, 9/11, etc.) are unique and unlikely to be repeated or the wave of the future. The interesting thing about BP is that it shows the interaction between claims facilities and litigation - its not one or the other. Speakers mentioned how companies trying to get ahead of a litigation may well look to the BP model. Others questioned whether BP was really special because the company was prepared to admit liability (although not gross negligence).
I was especially interested by the remarks of Sheila Birnbaum, currently running the 9/11 Fund for first responders and who mediated settlements for the 94 families who chose not to participate in the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Even the families who wanted a public trial to find out what happened ultimately settled because of the uncertainty of trial. This raises important questions about the purpose of litigation for individuals: is it ultimately to get compensation? How important is it to get to the "truth"? How important is vindication? Punishment? When people settle (or waive their right to litigate prior to filing suit), what kind of consent do we want and does money ultimately satisfy? Lynn Baker, who was at the conference, referred me to the following article that addresses some of these questions: Gillian Hadfield, Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. This continues to be relevant, especially if Funds become a model rather than a one-off.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
NPR has a story with lots of interesting quotes. My favorite:
"There's only one place where a waitress or a shrimper can be on equal footing with a company the size of BP, and that's a courtroom," says Rhon Jones, with the Montgomery, Ala., law firm Beasley Allen. Jones is part of the plaintiffs' steering committee, a group of lawyers coordinating the case.
The story raises a series of important questions about the purpose of litigation and settlement. Is it best for society to funnel cases outside that system as in the BP and 9/11 cases? What is the use of a trial - to apportion liability? get to the truth? allocate damages? figure out difficult causation questions? Are different plaintiffs to be treated differently - for example the waitress and the shrimper above as opposed to the attorneys general of the affected states?
Edited to add: I just saw the blog post by George Conk about the potential ineligibility of many plaintiffs who did not file claims with the compensation fund. See here for more analysis.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Eyal Zamir (Hebrew Univ.), Barak Medina (Hebrew Univ.), and Uzi Segal (Boston College, Economics) have posted to SSRN their article, The Puzzling Uniformity of Lawyers’ Contingent Fee Rates: An Assortative Matching Solution. Here is the abstract:
Lawyers’ Contingent Fee (CF) rates are rather uniform, often one-third of the recovery. Arguably, this uniformity attests to collusion in the market, resulting in clients paying supra-competitive fees. This paper challenges this common argument.
Uniform CF rates are not necessarily superior to negotiable ones; yet they provide clients with an important advantage. They result in clients making a defacto “take-it-or-leave-it” offer. It precludes lawyers from exploiting their private information about the lawsuit’s expected value and the amount of work it requires. The uniformity of CF rates enables clients to hire the best available lawyer, either directly, if clients know lawyers’ ranking, or indirectly, through the referral system. This uniformity thus fosters a positive assortative matching of lawyers and clients. Finally, the fact that both direct clients and clients obtained through paid-for referrals pay the same CF rate does not attest to cross-subsidization, as the cases a lawyer gets through referrals are quite different than those she gets directly.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Adam Zimmerman (St. John's) has a nice post on Prawfsblawg called "The Rise of Executive (Branch) Compensation" in which he discusses the historical antecedents and politics of compensation funds for mass disasters. It reminds us that not all worthy victims have been the beneficiaries of such funds and the reasons why some are picked (and others are not) are not always clear.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
All that in the recent interesting op-ed from New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera -- BP Makes Amends.
January 14, 2012 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Environmental Torts, Informal Aggregation, Lawyers, Mass Disasters, Procedure, Punitive Damages, Settlement | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, August 25, 2011
RAND's Institute for Civil Justice last week released its report, Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts and Tort Compensation, by Lloyd Dixon and Geoffrey McGovern. Here's the summary:
Payments by asbestos bankruptcy trusts have played an increasingly important role in compensating asbestos injuries and have become a matter of contention between plaintiff and defense attorneys. At issue is how tort cases take into consideration compensation paid by trusts and the evidence submitted in trust claim forms. This monograph examines how such evidence and compensation are addressed by state laws and considered during court proceedings. It also examines how the establishment of the trusts potentially affects plaintiff compensation from trusts and the tort system combined, payments by defendants that remain solvent, and the compensation available to future, as compared to current, plaintiffs. The authors find that the potential effects of trusts' replacement of once-solvent defendants are very different in states with joint-and-several liability than in states with several liability. In states with joint-and-several liability, total plaintiff compensation should not change. In several-liability states, the replacement of once-solvent defendants by trusts can cause total plaintiff compensation to increase, decrease, or remain unchanged. The findings underscore the importance of information on plaintiff exposure to the products and practices of the bankrupt firms in determining the trusts' effects on plaintiff compensation and on payments by defendants that remain solvent.
RAND also published the shorter Research Brief, Bankruptcy Trusts, Asbestos Compensation, and the Courts, by the same authors.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Call for Papers for "New Voices" Workshop at Vanderbilt's Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program
Announcement from Professor Tracey George, who is the new Director of Vanderbilt's Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program:
VANDERBILT LAW SCHOOL • BRANSTETTER LITIGATION & DISPUTE RESOLUTION PROGRAM
CALL FOR PAPERS
Vanderbilt Law School and the Cecil D. Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program announce the 2012 New Voices in Civil Justice Scholarship Workshop to be held at Vanderbilt on April 20, 2012, and invite submissions for the workshop.
The Branstetter Litigation & Dispute Resolution Program draws on a multimillion-dollar endowment to support research and curriculum in civil litigation and dispute resolution. The idea for the Branstetter “New Voices” workshop is to draw together scholars on civil justice issues who are in the first seven years of their academic careers. Four to six scholars will be chosen by anonymous review of the submitted papers. The audience will include invited junior scholars, Vanderbilt faculty, and invited guests. Previous participants include Nora Freeman Engstrom (Stanford), Maria Glover (Harvard), Margaret Lemos (Cardozo), Jonathan Mitchell (George Mason), Myriam Gilles (Cardozo), Donna Shestowsky (UC Davis), Benjamin Spencer (Washington & Lee), Amanda Tyler (George Washington), and Tobias Wolff (Pennsylvania).
The format for the workshop is designed to maximize collegial interaction and feedback. All participants will have read the selected papers. A senior faculty member will provide a brief overview and commentary on the paper, and then we are off and running with interactive discussion. Paper authors thus do not deliver prepared “presentations” as such. Rather, the overwhelming majority of each session is devoted to collective discussion of the paper involved.
1. Subject matter. Submitted papers should address an aspect of civil justice. Subject areas may include, but are not limited to, civil procedure, complex litigation, evidence, federal courts, judicial decisionmaking, alternative dispute resolution, remedies, and conflict of laws. In keeping with the intellectual breadth of the Branstetter Program faculty, we are very receptive to the full range of scholarly methodologies, from traditional doctrinal analysis to quantitative or experimental approaches.
2. Author qualifications. To be eligible to submit a paper, scholars must currently hold a permanent faculty position. In addition, scholars may not have held a position at assistant professor or higher (including visiting assistant professor) prior to 2004.
3. Format. Papers may be sent in either Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat format. To maintain the anonymity of the process, please remove any self-identifying information from the submission.
4. Deadline. Submissions should be e-mailed to Branstetter.Program@vanderbilt.edu no later than January 13, 2011. Please include your name, current position, and contact information in the e-mail accompanying the submission. We will contact you with our decision by February 15.
The Branstetter Program will pay all reasonable travel expenses within the United States for invited participants. If you have any questions, please email Professor Tracey George, Branstetter Program Director, at Branstetter.Program@vanderbilt.edu
Friday, July 8, 2011
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is arguing in favor of the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which is pending in the House and would change Rule 11 back to its pre-1993 mandatory sanctions approach and remove the current 21-day "safe harbor" for a litigant to withdraw challenged filings. In the 1980s, I believe the mandatory-sanctions/no-safe-harbor regime was blamed for increasing costly satellite Rule 11 litigations brought by both plaintiffs and defendants who perhaps in an excess of zeal repeatedly argued that the other side's positions were utterly meritless and frivolous.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also suggests that the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act would make it easier for parties challenging to recover their attorneys' fees. That modification raises the larger question of "loser pays" as a broad and perhaps more effective way to deter frivolous lawsuits. Under loser pays, the party that loses in a litigation must pay the attorneys' fees of the prevailing party. Followed in much of the world outside the U.S., loser pays deters frivolous litigation by removing much of the litigation costs that are used as a weapon to extract a nuisance-value settlement. For example, if it costs a defendant $50,000 in legal fees to obtain a ruling that a lawsuit is meritless, a plaintiff lawyer might offer to settle with the defendant for $25,000 -- less than it costs to litigate to a judge ruling. Unless the defendant thinks the plaintiff lawyer will turn around and sue the defendant again, the defendant may well choose the $25,000 settlement, even if the lawsuit seems clearly meritless or frivolous. But the $25,000 settlement may sufficiently compensate (via contingency fee) the plaintiff lawyer to incentivize the plaintiff lawyer to file another meritless claim against another defendant, and indeed, the plaintiff lawyer might even develop a successful business in frivolous claims. In contrast, if a loser-pays rule applies, defendant might well reject the $25,000 settlement and elect to spend $50,000 to obtain a court ruling exposing and dismissing the frivolous claim, also confident that the defendant can seek to recover the $50,000 in attorneys' fees from the plaintiff under the loser-pays rule. Moreover, ex ante, the plaintiff lawyer in a loser-pays jurisdiction should decline to even file a meritless claim, because the plaintiff lawyer would expect that the defendant would refuse a nuisance settlement and instead litigate to a ruling that will impose defendant's attorneys' fees on the plaintiff. The presence of loser pays is often cited as one reason that countries outside the United States have less litigation -- see, e.g., John Stossel, When Lawyers Become Bullies, Real Clear Politics (April 8, 2008).
One significant objection to loser pays is that impecunious plaintiffs will elect never to file their claims not because their claims are frivolous, but because they are risk averse about the possibility of defendants' attorneys fees being imposed on them. This concern is even greater in tort litigation, where injured plaintiffs are regular folks whose finances may already be strained by an injury. So the argument goes, loser pays should be rejected because these impecunious plaintiffs will not file what are meritorious suits -- and access to justice is denied.
But what if the cost of loser pays were permitted to be shifted from a plaintiff to his or her attorney? Plaintiff attorneys already make entrepreneurial decisions about the likelihood of success in a case when plaintiff attorneys decide whether to take a case on contingency fee and risk no reimbursement if they lose at trial or by judicial ruling. Adding fee-shifting via loser pays would only increase the size of the bet on each case, and plaintiff firms could adjust to that larger bet by becoming somewhat larger and greater diversifying that risk, or even by gaining greater access to outside capital and loans (the latter of which is itself controversial). Ultimately, injured plaintiffs would conceivably still have access to attorneys for meritorious cases, but having lost the threat of nuisance-value settlements and now fearing fee-shifting via loser pays, plaintiff lawyers would screen out frivolous claims and never file them.
I think there is much to recommend this market-finance-oriented version of loser pays, but of course plaintiff lawyers might resist it because it would remove the stream of income from nuisance-value settlements. And even though they might not admit it, defense lawyers also benefit from being hired to defend frivolous cases, so they might not vigorously push such a proposal, unless their defendant clients vigorously pushed them to do so. Ultimately, a reduction in frivolous litigation reduces the wealth of the entire bar, but the bar has no valid entitlement to enrichment by waste. Notwithstanding lawyers' interests, Alaska has had a version of loser pays, and Texas over a month ago enacted a version of loser pays. If Texas Governor Rick Perry enters the Republican primary as a candidate for President in 2012, loser pays as litigation reform (and tort reform) may well receive substantial national attention. That would be a good thing.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
BNA Class Action Litigation Reporter reports that the lawsuits against Bayer Cropscience for the contamination of rice crops with genetically modified rice have settled. The case was In Re: Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, E.D. Mo., No. 4:06-md-1811.
The plaintiffs were denied class certification for predictable reasons. The settlement is equally predictably organized on the Vioxx model: it goes into effect if 85% of the farmers sign on.
For more information on the MDL GMO Rice Litigation see the E.D.Mo. website: http://www.moed.uscourts.gov/node/115. (As for this writing, not updated to reflect the BNA report of settlement). As the website notes, the GMO rice has since been de regulated by the FDA.
Image by scottchan.
Friday, March 25, 2011
S. Todd Brown (Buffalo) has posted a paper entitled The Market for Specious Claims on SSRN. It promises to be an interesting application of the adverse selection problem to our favorite subject here at the Mass Tort Litigation Blog! Here is the abstract:
Few problems are more disruptive to the efficient operation of comprehensive mass tort settlements than over-subscription, which, at times, appears to be fueled primarily by specious claims. In settlements with opt out rights, a flood of claims can generate a market for lemons, with the weakest claims submitting to the settlement and the strongest opting out and seeking recovery at trial or in private settlement. In binding settlements, they may result in a commons problem, requiring dramatic reductions in payment that effectively transfer recoveries from those with intrinsically strong claims to those with weak claims.
This Article evaluates the history of three mass torts where specious claim practices were uncovered and identifies common themes that reflect broader lessons about the potential for over-subscription. In particular, although commentators often focus on the incentives that drive claim recruiting, this Article explains that over-subscription has its origins in claim development incentives, which may be distorted by fixed settlement criteria and encourage practices that lend themselves to specious claim filings. This dynamic is particularly likely to generate specious claim markets for low or negative expected value claims. Moreover, the manner in which this process unfolds presents special difficulties for ethical enforcement and deterrence, suggesting that other mechanisms for controlling specious claim markets may be necessary.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Sergio Campos (Miami) sent me the link to the following debate on the University of Pennsylvania Law Review's internet companion Pennumbra (cute eh? the italics are in the original)
The short piece is called "The Future of Mass Torts - and How to Stop It" - its a defense of the deterrence rationale for limiting individual control of cases in mass tort situations. Our own Howard Erichson is scheduled to respond. Enjoy!
Thursday, February 17, 2011
John Schwartz of the NYTimes reports in an article entitled "BP Says Terms in Oil Spill Settlement Are Too Generous." The basic complaint is contained in a 25 page letter to Mr. Feinberg that basically says BP is unahppy over the valuation of future damages. The article points out that BP's letter seems to indicate that Feinberg is independent in his valuations. It raises an important question also raised by John CP Goldberg's memo to Feinberg. That is, what is and what ought to be the relationship between the law on the books and the decisions of a claims facility set up outside the legal system?
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
On this Friday, February 18, Mississippi College School of Law will be hosting a law review symposium, Beyond the Horizon: The Gulf Oil Spill Crisis -- Analyzing Economic, Environmental, and Legal Implications of the Oil Spill. Here's the short-form brochure: Download MC Law Review Symposium Brochure.
Speakers include Professors Jamison Colburn (Penn State), Kenneth Murchison (LSU), David Robertson (Texas), Edward Sherman (Tulane), and Trudy Fisher (Miss. Dep't Envt'l Quality). Moderators include Jeffrey Jackson (Mississippi College) and Betty Ruth Fox (Watkins & Eager). Papers will subsequently be published in the Mississippi College Law Review.
I will also be speaking at the symposium, discussing issues of claim-administrator compensation, transparency, and independence in connection with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. My talk will expand upon my prior blog posts raising concerns (see here and here), which last summer triggered two articles in Forbes (see here and here), as well as a post from Legal Ethics Forum. Two weeks ago, the federal MDL court overseeing the BP litigation granted in part plaintiffs' motion to have the court oversee communications by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, and the MDL court ordered that the Gulf Coast Claims Facility may not state that it is "neutral" or completely "independent" of BP. Here's the MDL opinion: Download Order - Mot to Supervise GCCF Doc 1098 2-2-2011. On the recent MDL opinion, see also this Reuters article from Moira Herbst, quoting David Logan (Roger WIlliams), Monroe Freedman (Hofstra), and me.
UPDATE -- Here's the full-length brochure for the symposium: Download MC Law BP Symposium Handout.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
On Saturday, February, 26, 2011, the Southwestern Journal of International Law is hosting a symposium entitled, 2021: International Law Ten Years From Now, at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. The symposium is being presented in conjunction with International Law Weekend-West of the International Law Association (American Branch). Panels will address topics including international litigation, international human rights, international environmental law/climate change, international dispute resolution law, and international legal profession. The keynote speaker will be Michael Traynor, President Emeritus and Council Chair of the American Law Institute, and Co-Chair of the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20. Here's the brochure.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Moira Herbst of Reuters has a short, but thoughtful piece analyzing the issues at play for a private claims administrator running a quasi-public claims fund. It's easy to sympathize in the abstract with Ken Feinberg's difficult situation in exploring what's appropriate in his unprecedented role; but with his firm being compensated at an average of $1,000 per hour (according to Herbst's analysis), he's not ultimately likely to get much sympathy.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Reading yesterday’s New York Times article on the 9/11 Workers Settlement, I couldn’t help but think of the other-regarding preferences and psychological influences that played a role in garnering the requisite 95.1% agreement. The two claimants quoted in the article, Jennifer McNamara (whose firefighter husband died of colon cancer last year) and Kenny Specht, a retired firefighter with thyroid cancer, both framed their ultimate decision to participate in the settlement in terms of helping others within the community of plaintiffs. As described by the N.Y. Times, McNamara “explained to friends in a letter that she did not want to delay the settlement for the many plaintiffs who needed it to pay mortgages and medical bills.” Specht said, “I am not sure that holding out for a better offer will ever be something that is attainable.”
I’ve written about this internal group pressure in the past and how claimants might be able to use it to their benefit as opposed to lawyers using it for theirs. It does appear that Napoli Bern Ripka LLP held at least one town hall meeting (video footage available below), but I’m not sure whether claimants were encouraged or given opportunities to discuss the deal with one another or whether the lawyers did most of the talking. Given the claimants geographical proximity to one another in the 9/11 Workers Settlement as well as the closeness of the firefighting and police officers’ communities, it appears that altruism, reciprocity, and a concern for others' well-being within their community played a significant role in members’ decision to approve the settlement (though the settlement did not receive the 100% approval rate that would have paid out $712 million). Others simply appeared to be exhausted by the protracted litigation and wanted finality. Still others, at least 520 of them, opted out (or did not respond by the deadline). A New York Times article last August described several plaintiffs' difficult decision-making process.
Although the House of Representatives has approved a bill that would reopen the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund, the Senate has yet to approve it and those who have signed on to the 9/11 Workers Settlement will be ineligible for compensation.
Here's a link to Napoli Bern's press release (with the percentage of claimants signing-on in each tier).
Friday, November 19, 2010
The allocation neutral in the World Trade Center litigation reported today that 10,043 claimants have agreed to participate in the settlement. This number, which constitutes 95.1% of the 10,563 eligible claimants, apparently meets (just barely) the 95 percent threshold required under the terms of the settlement agreement. But the settlement agreement also required at least 90% participation and 95% participation by particular categories of claimants. The report filed today states that 87.4% eligible "Tier 1" claimants (2383 out of 2726) signed on. Does this mean that the settlement fails? Media reports suggest that the settlement is going forward, but I will be interested to find out whether all of the participation requirements were met.
In general, it comes as no surprise when a mass tort settlement meets a participation threshold, given that clients overwhelmingly follow their lawyers' advice to participate in a settlement. But the WTC litigation -- and particularly Judge Hellerstein's rejection of an earlier settlement proposal amid questions about whether a judge in a non-class action has any business "approving" or "disapproving" a settlement -- generated enough notoriety that reasonable observers might have wondered how claimants would react.
UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The settlement agreement requires 90% participation by each category of claimants with "qualifying injuries" but does not require a specified percentage of participation by claimants with no qualifying injury. Tier 1 consists of claimants with no qualifying injury. Therefore, the participation levels do meet the requirement under the terms of the agreement.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The results of how many plaintiffs signed on to the WTC Disaster Site Litigation Settlement, which required that 95% of the plaintiffs sign on for the settlement to go forward, will be announced at 1 PM tomorrow. Click here to see docket & documents online.
Interestingly, the allocation neutral overseeing this aspect of the settlement adminsitration is from Ohio - Matthew Garretson. His profile can be found here. Here is the description of the firm's work on allocating settlement proceedings to claimants:
Perhaps the hallmark of our settlement allocation service, GFRG helps ensure that similarly-situated claimants are treated the same under the methodology developed to allocate the settlement proceeds and to help ensure that every claimant is allocated a fair and equitable share of the settlement proceeds (taking into account the terms/conditions of the Settlement Agreement, the severity of the injury and the proof available).
The question of course is whether the terms of the settlement agreement - i.e. the matrix developed by the lawyers - fairly allocates funds and what data is used to make those determinations.
h/t Fred Mogul, WNYC.
Monday, September 20, 2010
An article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the remaining BP's remaining challenges stemming from the Gulf Oil Spill -- governmental investigations, civil lawsuits, and fines. The amount of fines imposed may turn on whether BP is found "grossly negligent." With regard to lawsuits, much will depend on the extent to which Ken Feinberg can persuade potential plaintiffs to forego their legal claims in exchange for quicker compensation via the $20 billion BP claims fund.