Marquette Law Blog -Top Changes in the Legal Profession Since 1979…Scruggs/mass tort rise and fall

3. The rise (and fall?) of mass tort litigation.
The rise of products liability law was in full swing when I entered law school in 1979. Verdicts had begun to breach the million-dollar barrier by then, and the Inner Circle of Advocates (an invitation-only group of fifty (now 100) personal injury lawyers who had obtained at least one million-dollar verdict) was seven years old then. The most famous verdict in the 1980s was in the Pennzoil case, in which the jury awarded Pennzoil over $10 billion in damages. But even that case paled as mass tort law arose. From Agent Orange to Dalkon Shield to DES to asbestos and silicosis cases, personal injury lawyers made incredible amounts of money. The culmination of those cases was the tobacco litigation, initially generated by Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, a Mississippi lawyer who funded the case with his own money and earned a huge return on his investment. The amounts of money were apparently large enough to ensnare the then-Attorney General of Texas, Dan Morales, who, along with an attorney named Mark Murr, was indicted in March 2003 for mail fraud in relation to the tobacco suit. Both later pled guilty, and Morales also pled guilty to tax evasion. The subsequent Texas tobacco litigation included a “Big Five” (but not Joe Jamail of Pennzoil fame) of lawyers. They received a fee of $2.3 billion, later increased to $3.2 billion! Scruggs’s downfall was a later plea of guilty to conspiracy to bribe a judge in another case. In 2005, federal district court judge Janis Jack dismissed a multi-district mass tort case involving claims of silicosis (caused from inhaling silica dust) allegedly suffered by over 10,000 plaintiffs. The court held that the diagnoses of silicosis were not reliable (indeed, spectacularly unreliable), and ordered plaintiffs’ counsel to pay the costs for the expert testimony hearing over which the court had jurisdiction. The Vioxx litigation suggested a continuation of mass tort cases, but its viability is unclear.

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