November 13, 2015

300% ROI: ‘Plaintiff Commodities Market’ Pays Big Returns for Trial Bar

“My God! The Dukes are going to corner the entire frozen orange juice market!” — Louis Winthorpe III (as portrayed by Dan Aykroyd) in Trading Places.

The above quote was made famous in the 1983 comedy, Trading Places, starring Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy. In the movie, two stereotypical “fat cats”, Randolph and Mortimer Duke, play a game with the life of Aykroyd’s character (Winthorpe), while plotting to game the commodities market and make a financial killing on pork bellies and orange juice.

In a sign that life can follow fiction, some key plaintiffs’ bar players are doing their best “Randolph and Mortimer Duke” impressions by playing games with the lives of plaintiffs — buying and selling them like commodities to make a financial killing on mass torts.

Take, for example, a recent lawsuit against Houston-based plaintiffs’ firm AkinMears. The suit was filed by a financier who claims AkinMears owes him more than $4.2 million in allegedly unpaid commissions for raising “nearly $100 million used to purchase thousands of injury claims from other lawyers.”

According to the complaint, AkinMears used hedge fund money to buy and sell thousands of personal injury lawsuits, treating the plaintiffs like mere commodities.

In fact, in his lawsuit against the firm, financier Amir Shenaq says that “AkinMears is nothing more than a glorified claims processing center, where the numbers are huge, the clients commodities, and the paydays, when they come, stratospheric.”

But the Duke brothers comparisons don’t end there.

Just this week, Greg Kirkland, former CEO of the Illinois-based asbestos plaintiffs’ firm Simmons, Hanly, Conroy, testified in the corruption trial of indicted former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver is facing charges that he steered state grants to a cancer research center in exchange for that center referring clients back to his law firm.

In his testimony, Kirkland admitted that a foundation set up by the Simmons firm had agreed to contribute $3,150,000 to Columbia University — which housed the Mesothelioma Center at the heart of the Silver investigation.

Specifically, Kirkland testified, the firm’s relationship was with the center’s head, Dr. Robert Taub, who has already admitted to federal prosecutors he steered referrals to Silver’s law firm in exchange for state grant contributions to his cancer center.

According to federal prosecutors, Taub then referred 29 separate patients back to the Simmons firm — and Kirkland testified that all but three became clients of the firm. He also testified that the Simmons firm’s mesothelioma settlements averaged $1 million.

Let’s do the math: The Simmons firm contributes $3,150,000 to Dr. Taub’s cancer research center, and in return receives 29 referrals; 26 of which become clients.

At $1 million per settlement, and estimating a 40% contingency fee for the law firm — that could be upwards of a $10 million return on a $3,150,000 investment. That’s more than 300% return on investment.

Randolph and Mortimer Duke would be impressed.

With returns on investment like that, it’s no surprise that the plaintiffs’ bar (and their allies such as the Environmental Working Group) are working overtime to obstruct reforms that would break up the “plaintiff commodities market” and protect access to justice for deserving victims.

In fact, lost amid the plaintiffs’ bar’s battle for dollars and cents is the fact that they are playing games with the lives of real victims who are hurt by this questionable activity.

We can only hope that Congress takes action to help expose these schemes and, like Trading Places, provide us with a happy ending that gave the Duke boys their comeuppance.

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