In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that the “folkloric image” of the small-town attorney, nobly fighting back against the giant corporations on behalf of the common man, has been tarnished by the convictions of infamous high-priced plaintiffs’ trial lawyers Dickie Scruggs and Mel Weiss.
In his piece, “Reining In the Kings of Tort,” Ignatius analyzes their falls from grace:
What destroyed Weiss and Scruggs was a system in which the money just got too big. The two had helped spawn an industry of class-action mega-cases that was so lucrative, the plaintiffs couldn’t bear the idea of losing. So the “good guys” began to cut corners.
Ignatius goes on to say their misdeeds are not just examples of extreme personal excess; they call into question the cracked foundation of America’s lawsuit system.
These mega-cases have turned traditional notions of legal practice upside down. The old system revolved around individual plaintiffs who hired lawyers to seek redress through the courts. Lawyers back then regarded it as unethical to solicit clients, and until 1977 there was a strict ban against attorney advertising. Nowadays, advertising is pervasive, and in class-action cases, it’s the lawyers who in effect are hiring clients — often in a rush to file civil suits against companies that have just admitted guilt in criminal cases. At its worst, the system is close to legalized extortion.
The cases of Scruggs, Weiss, Bill Lerach and the Kentucky three are symptoms of a larger problem – the inherent culture of greed and corruption growing in the plaintiffs’ trial bar.
While Ignatius is tongue-in-cheek when he concludes that, “It would be nice if the class-action lawyers reformed themselves, but if not, someone should file a lawsuit,” we believe the time for an internal audit has long passed. The U.S. House and Senate leadership have been eager to conduct oversight hearings into the perceived abuses of other industries. Why not investigate an industry that holds the rest of America’s economy hostage through “legalized extortion”?