Though it's natural for people to take pride in their professional accomplishments, whether we congratulate them or not may depend on the nature of their professions.

When Olympic athletes set world records, for instance, it's easy to share in their excitement. When morticians have banner years, it's harder to get fired up.

Our reaction to success may vary from profession to profession, and from one practitioner to the next within a profession. It may even vary for a single person, from one success to another.

We may cheer the attorney who successfully defends an innocent client and hiss at the same attorney for getting an obviously guilty party acquitted.

Personal injury attorneys in particular provoke this type of ambivalence. When they obtain legitimate redress for genuine harms inflicted, we applaud their skill in the service of justice. When they secure huge settlements with trumped-up cases, we disparage their socially destructive victories.

In a press release issued earlier this year, the Manhattan-based law firm Weitz & Luxenberg boasted that it "has arranged for nine New York lung-cancer victims who were heavy smokers to be paid a substantial sum in settlement of claims that asbestos exposure was a factor in developing the disease and that it couldn't be blamed on cigarettes alone."

Alas, we find ourselves unable to celebrate the triumph they trumpet – for the very reason cited by one of their attorneys as a positive outcome. "This settlement," she affirmed, "demonstrates that it is entirely possible for plaintiffs who were smokers – even if they smoked heavily – to sue and be compensated for asbestos-exposure injury."

We can see where this is headed.

Just last month, a woman filed suit against Texaco in Jefferson County District Court, charging that the company negligently exposed her father to asbestos, thereby contributing to his death from lung cancer. Her father, it turns out, smoked the equivalent of 45 cigarettes a day.

Whatever happened to mea culpa?

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