Joe Nocera

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  • NYT Columnist Accuses Asbestos Victims of Scamming Civil Justice System

    Blog ››› ››› MEAGAN HATCHER-MAYS

    New York Times columnist Joe Nocera called recent asbestos litigation a "scam" and complained that "tens of thousands" of asbestos cases are "bogus" and "phony," despite no evidence of widespread fraudulent asbestos claims.

    Nocera dedicated his most recent column to attacking victims of asbestos exposure and their attorneys. Not only does Nocera significantly overstate the problem of fraudulent asbestos claims, he accused asbestos litigants of falsely attributing lung cancers to asbestos exposure to obtain damage awards.

    From Nocera's December 2 column:

    It's hard these days for smokers to sue tobacco companies because everyone knows the dangers of cigarettes. Instead, [Rep. Carolyn] McCarthy has become part of a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing companies that once used asbestos.

    With asbestos litigation well into its fourth decade -- the longest-running mass tort in American history -- you'd think the plaintiffs' bar would have run out of asbestos companies to sue. After all, asbestos lawsuits have bankrupted more than 100 companies. Yet McCarthy has found more than 70 additional companies to sue, including General Electric and Pfizer. Asbestos litigation, says Lester Brickman, a professor at Yeshiva University and perhaps the most vocal critic of asbestos lawsuits, "is a constant search for viable defendants." Because asbestos was once such a ubiquitous product, there is always somebody else to sue.

    Let me stipulate right here that exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The worst illness it causes is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that essentially suffocates its victims to death. If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue. That's how the tort system is supposed to work.

    But, over the years, plaintiffs' lawyers have brought tens of thousands of bogus cases. They took doctors on their payroll to industrial sites, where all the employees would be screened for signs of an asbestos-related disease. They found some real cases, of course -- along with many that could never have stood up in court. Nonetheless, by bundling real cases with phony ones -- and filing giant lawsuits -- they took down one company after another.

    Nocera is disturbed by the fact that McCarthy, a smoker, has opted to sue asbestos manufacturers instead of tobacco companies. But regardless of the individual merits of McCarthy's suit (which hasn't been decided yet), it is wholly irresponsible for Nocera to use it as evidence of "tens of thousands" of other bogus claims -- especially since there's no concrete evidence of widespread asbestos litigation fraud. When Congress asked the United States Government Accountability Office to audit these trusts (set up at the asbestos companies' initiative), the GAO reported that audits had not "identified cases of fraud."

  • NYT Columnist Smears "Plaintiffs' Lawyers" Because Of Deepwater Horizon Litigation

    Blog ››› ››› SERGIO MUNOZ

    Columnist Joe Nocera of The New York Times made a sweeping negative generalization about "mass tort" lawsuits and "plaintiffs' lawyers" because BP is currently paying out more in damages than it expected for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

    BP pled guilty to the felony manslaughter of 11 workers who perished when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010. In addition, BP pled guilty to lying to Congress about the extent of the resulting environmental catastrophe and agreed to a $4 billion plea agreement - a record sum in criminal penalties. BP also settled in civil proceedings for damage beyond the immediate blowout, such as the extensive economic and medical harm caused to those who depend on a Gulf of Mexico unpolluted by millions of barrels of oil.

    Currently, BP, which remains the "world leader in deepwater drilling," is attempting to renege on this agreement.

    Defending BP's appeal of its settlement and advertising campaign warning against potential claimants "tak[ing] money they don't deserve," Nocera claimed that many Gulf residents and business owners receiving court-ordered damage awards are "basically bystanders...[with] their hands out" represented by "plaintiffs' lawyers [who] gin up cases because, well, that's what they do." From the NYT:

    One of the things I find particularly offensive is that the settlement includes criteria that virtually ensure that businesses unharmed by the oil spill will get compensation. All over the Gulf, lawyers are advising clients to line up at the BP trough, and they are doing so.

    But how is this righting a wrong? Why is it appropriate to transfer money from BP shareholders to people who were basically bystanders and now have their hands out? When I posed this question to the plaintiffs' lawyers who sued BP, I received a lengthy statement from one of the lead lawyers, Steven Herman, describing a formula that, he noted several times, BP had agreed to, and even encouraged. He said that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was aimed at helping people who have been harmed "indirectly." What he didn't say is that the more claimants getting BP's money, the more money winds up with the lawyers themselves.

    If some claimants or attorneys have profited from illegitimate claims, that is wrong.