UGA Expert: Lawyers, Not Plaintiffs, See Payouts in Liability Cases

Jul 10, 2019

A new book by a University of Georgia expert shows what many people suspected about lawyers’ fees may actually be true. Research by Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, the Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law at UGA, shows that in many cases, the money won in mass lawsuits goes to lawyers’ fees and not the victims.

“And so the lawyers themselves start to refer to their clients as their inventory but these are people these aren't widgets that you put on the shelf,” Chamblee Burch said. “These are actual people who feel the impact of these lawsuits. And so my focus has been on them and to try to bring them back into their proceedings.”

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

Chamblee Burch literally wrote a book on the subject titled “Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation.” Mass tort lawsuits often get confused with class-action suits. Both are coordinated lawsuits, but class-action status ensures some built-in protections for plaintiffs. Judges must approve settlements as being fair. The decision can be appealed; private settlements can’t be. She says these type cases began with asbestos lawsuits in the late 1980s and early 1990s

“We have what I call repeat players. We have the same lawyers who negotiated the asbestos deals that are now negotiating the opioid lawsuits. And so you see the same attorneys that appear over and over again and they adjust their deals.”

She states there aren’t a lot of restrictions or even guidelines regarding how attorneys resolve the cases.

“There aren't a whole lot of rules that govern these proceedings. And so they largely operate in an area that allows them to create norms and to create private practices and so they do they tweak it as they go.”

She cites one case where Johnson & Johnson set aside $80 million for a lawsuit involving more than 6,000 plaintiffs. Only 37 plaintiffs received a total 0f $6.5 million while the lead lawyers nabbed $27 million by negotiating with the company’s representation and agreeing that leftover fund money would go back to Johnson & Johnson.

Chamblee Burch does say there are straightforward remedies that judges can start implementing immediately to help the situation.

For example, tie lead lawyers’ payouts to the actual payout the plaintiffs receive. Give plaintiffs a hearing in front of the presiding judge to air any grievances about their representation. Shake up how judges choose lead lawyers. Let plaintiffs out of the multidistrict proceedings if they want to take their case to trial instead of forcing them to settle with everyone else.