Deep pockets: Asbestos lawyers spend millions on favored candidates

The SE Texas Record Oct. 27, 2008, 3:40am

Plaintiffs lawyers like Walter Umphrey, Wayne Reaud, John O'Quinn and Fred Baron rose from their humble, blue collar beginnings in Texas to build some of the most successful firms in the country.

Their unprecedented business-model approach to asbestos and tobacco litigation has made millions for the men and their firms.

Of the 16 highest grossing plaintiff firms in America in 2003, several are based in Texas, including the Beaumont firms of Reaud, Morgan and Quinn and Provost & Umphrey, the Houston-based firm of O'Quinn, Laminack & Pirtle and the Dallas-based firm of Baron & Budd. Each firm had to gross more than $50 million annually to make the list.

Other than their legal victories and Texas roots, one thread that draws all these lawyers together is politics, specifically large campaign contributions to numerous Democratic Party campaigns.

But the one issue that trumps all others is that of tort reform, a term plaintiff attorneys believe so loaded they have to fight back.

"There is no such thing as tort reform," Miami lawyer Mike Eidson, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America said in a 2006 interview with the Miami Herald. "Reform automatically is a word used, if you're framing this debate, [to imply] that it's broken and needs something done to it. So you go out and make up laws to take people's rights away so they can't get justice in the courts."

When it comes to politics, there is no need for semantics. Just as large corporations have funneled money into the pockets of pro-business, usually Republican candidates, trial lawyers have countered with millions in donations to Democrats willing to beat back legislation they believe will take away the legal advantage that has allowed them to make their lucrative living.

"To trial lawyers, corporations are the incarnation of evil, sinister megaliths directed by amoral men who use their monstrous power to get away with enormous crimes," William Tucker wrote in a 2003 Weekly Standard story. "This is a rebirth of 20th century Populism, but with a twist. The Populists never dragged corporate America before the civil bar, stripping them of billions in the process."

As a result, these lawyers are willing to spend millions to protect their turf. O'Quinn pledged $5 million in support of Texas Democrat Chris Bell's 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Likewise, Reaud has donated more than a half a million to state and national Democrats.

"The surest way to stop federal tort reform," a tort-reform Web site that chronicles the donations of trial lawyers stated, "is to buy influence in the Senate with massive contributions."

While many of the Texas lawyers prefer to avoid the scrutiny that comes with media attention, Fred Baron has been particularly brash. He has openly and aggressively challenged tort reform lawyers who challenged his aggressive tactics of recruiting plaintiffs and settling multi-million dollar cases.

After a lengthy expose' in 1998 subjected Baron's firm to charges of unethically coaching witnesses, Baron defiantly defended the strategies even while incurring the wrath of prominent law professors.

Just as aggressively, Baron challenged those who would defy him politically. The Wall Street Journal noted that during a 2002 speech, Baron said "the plaintiffs bar is all but running the Senate."

"Fred Baron is an excellent lawyer," tort reform lawyer Mark Behrens said in a recent interview. "He's successful in whatever he does."

In addition to his donations to the national presidential races, Baron contributed more than $1.7 million to the Texas Democratic Trust in the last two years.

Umphrey has donated more than $1 million to the Texas Democratic Party alone.

According to public records, Umphrey donated to the Democratic presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson, for a total of more than $43,000 during the 2008 election cycle. He donated $46,000 in 2006 and $94,000 in 2004.

A 2004 story in American Lawyer said the highest earning plaintiff lawyers remain focused on politics. "Virtually every source of their revenue has been the subject of federal legislation in the last few years," the story states.

Prior to the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards warned his fellow trial lawyers of a coming war with Republicans.

"If Bush gets elected with big majorities in Congress," Edwards told a gathering of trial lawyers, "you'll get tort reform like you've never seen before."

Sixty percent of all the money donated to Edwards' failed 2008 presidential bid came from trial lawyers.

Unlike Baron, however, the American Lawyer article that chronicled the top earning plaintiff attorneys said many of those named did not want to be mentioned.

"They feared that any linkage of their firms' names with dollar figures would make them even more convenient targets than they already are," one lawyer said in the story. "They are going to take your list and match it with political contributions and wave it around."

But as the article points out, the waiving around hasn't, at least to date, been effective. Reaud spends several days a month lobbying in Washington, D.C.

"It's no coincidence that every piece of federal tort reform legislation of the last four years, including the national asbestos trust fund that might have put a serious dent in the earnings of several firms � failed to pass," the American Lawyer story stated.

Despite the Legislative success, the American Trial Lawyers Association is determined to reshape public opinion. Trial lawyers, Eidson said, "represent the ordinary man in trying to hold wrongdoers accountable."

The group changed its name to the American Association for Justice last year. It has since tripled its communication staff, working with a $42 million annual budget to change the way the public views the work of trial lawyers.

"I think our justice system," Eidson said, "has been under attack by big corporations and foundations for the last 25 years. They are trying to make the average person seeking justice a bad thing. They have succeeded in a lot of ways."

Not without cost

Despite the effort of Eidson and other organizations, many of the trial lawyers themselves have helped contribute to the negative image concerning their legal victories.

In asbestos cases to date, more than $70 billion has been paid in settlements. The plaintiff attorneys have been paid more than $40 million of that figure, according to report by the Manhattan Institute.

In some of the largest aggregated cases, the hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs were paid on average less than $10,000, while the lawyers were paid 40 percent in contingency fees.

The courts have dealt these lawyers several highly public setbacks as well. O'Quinn, Umphrey and Reaud have each been successfully sued by former clients who say they were not defended properly or paid a fair amount.

A recent Jefferson County court decision ordered O'Quinn to refund at least $35.7 million to more than 3,000 former clients. O'Quinn also was publicly reprimanded by the State Bar for the way he solicited cases.

He drew further negative attention when he represented the mother of Anna Nicole Smith after the starlet died in 2007. Smith's friend and lawyer, Howard K. Stern, sued O'Quinn for allegedly libelous statements.

Reaud experienced tragedy first-hand during a brush with the ugly side of asbestos litigation.

Asbestos attorneys started the practice of recruiting plaintiffs through bogus medical screening. The fallout finally exposed in court results in plenty of reprimands and embarrassment to go around. But Reaud's firm paid even more dearly.

Chris Quinn, a partner at Reaud's firm was shot and killed in 2002, by a 79-year-old man angered that the firm refused to represent him in an asbestos case.

"We sent him to our doctor," Reaud said, "who told us the man didn't have anything wrong with him. We told him this, but the guy kept insisting he was sick. 'I know I got it, I know I got' he said. What we didn't realize is that he had been recruited by one of these advertising firms in Dallas, and they had told him he had asbestos damage."

The shooter, Richard Gerzine, returned with a shotgun and killed Quinn in his office. Gerzine later died in prison.

A picture of Quinn, former Baylor football player and father of five, still hangs in the law office.

"These advertising firms that file fraudulent asbestos cases don't have a bigger enemy in the world than me," Reaud told the Weekly Standard.

But Reaud has had his methods challenged as well. Reaud's partnership with other Texas lawyers including Umphrey earned $65 million in fees settling a personal injury case following the explosion of a chemical plant.

But when the firm used tactics from its successful asbestos settlements, most notably lumping plaintiffs together to force a high-priced settlement, almost a third of their clients sued the company for negligent legal services.

Kansas-based attorney William Skepnek took on the case, eventually winning in Texas Supreme Court. The New York Times reported that the case, "offers a striking evidence of assembly-line law in which layers served their own interests at their clients' expense."

Brickman said the case "opens a rare window on the sleazy business of mass disaster torts."

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777 6th Street Northwest
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