Joe Nocera for The New York Times: Lawyers' Business Model

July 29th, 2013

The New York Times
by Joe Nocera
July 29, 2013

In the fall of 1995, as a staff writer at Fortune magazine, I wrote a story about the mass litigation surrounding silicone breast implants. Plaintiffs’ lawyers had filed thousands of cases against Dow Corning, accusing it of selling a product — the silicone used in implants — that caused autoimmune diseases. Fearful that the litigation could put it out of business, Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy protection.

The scientific evidence for the plaintiffs’ claims was slim. Nonetheless, Dow Corning felt it had no choice but to agree to a huge settlement, which it did in 1998. Subsequently, the Institute of Medicine concluded that, indeed, there was no scientific link between silicone breast implants and autoimmune disease. Not that that ever really mattered.

We all have experiences that shape our view of the world, and this was one of mine. Until that story, I’d always taken the liberal view of plaintiffs’ lawyers as avenging angels, righting wrongs and helping wrest compensation for people who had been harmed by greedy corporations.

But watching Dow Corning knuckle under caused me to look at major plaintiffs’ lawsuits with a more skeptical eye. Yes, there are certainly times when the court system provides the appropriate forum to address corporate wrongdoing. But just as often — more often, in my view — plaintiffs’ lawyers gin up cases because, well, that’s what they do. Like the corporations they sue, big-time plaintiffs’ lawyers have a business model. Theirs requires them to constantly seek out cases that can be blown up into giant mass torts, as they’re called, which can then be used to extract billions from companies.

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