Search This Blog


Contingency OK to enrich lawyers at citizens' expense

Today the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee began hearing a bill that potentially could enrich trial lawyers at the expense of Louisianans, and has the chance rightly to stop it.

Supporters of SB 731 by Senate Pres. Joel Chaisson, who had brought a somewhat similar bill forward in 2006, argued that since almost every other state had the ability to hire lawyers on contingency that so should Louisiana. In committee they argued this was necessary to ensure the state could have access to expertise to fight expensive cases against deep-pocketed entities. They also claimed that sufficient checks were in place – the Attorney General explaining the need, open bidding for work, and approval by the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget – to prevent backroom, sweetheart deals from coming about.

But the bill has a glaring weakness (among others) – no caps on what could be earned by lawyers, with potential for 10 percent of anything recovered past $250 million plus higher percentages at lower amounts plus expenses. Even though the bill was amended to apply only to massive oil spill cases, as currently applied to the BP spill the state could pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to a handful of lawyers.

Proponents say what lawyers make will not matter because the state will be better off, making the assumption that only through contingency contracts can the necessary legal talent be attracted to do the job. Committee member state Rep. John Bel Edwards, like Chaisson a trial lawyer, says this properly aligns forces to allow a weaker side to take on a stronger one.

Of course, that is a ludicrous statement in this instance. Edwards seriously thinks that BP, whose uncertain revenues come from voluntary transactions, has more power than the state of Louisiana which can coerce through taxation any amount of money it wants to fund a case and can regulate BP into submission in any one of numerous ways? He needs to buy a clue, or at least rent one.

Chaisson claimed that the “enriching” people should be concerned about would be the likes of BP by not passing his bill, not lawyers. But state Rep. John Schroder got it exactly correct when he noted the taxpayer should be the ultimate concern. As other opponents pointed out, there’s no reason the state cannot appropriate over the next few years a few million dollars a year to pay hourly rates to excellent litigators and accomplish the same settlement at a much cheaper cost than by contingency. All it takes it the sufficient political will to do so.

That approach is far superior because then money that need not go into a few lawyers’ pockets (and then maybe some of that in the form of campaign contributions to legislative supporters of this bill) can be used on recovery costs that otherwise would be an additional levy on taxpayers and/or force reduction in services in other areas. If the political will is not there to do this, that means more importance is being attached to things like legislators’ pet projects.

The state needn’t sell out its citizens and inappropriately benefit trial lawyers to get just compensation for any situation, not even with the current crisis. Regrettably, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration abjured this, showing apparent willingness to abandon principle (even as it spokesman claimed it didn’t) for short-term benefits by endorsing the amended compromise.

Legislators need not follow that example when the committee reconvenes Monday evening. And if the committee fails to safeguard the citizenry’s resources and invites “pay for play” situations hopefully the entire House will step up in the panel’s and the Jindal Administration’s absence.

No comments: