Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Ever hear the tale about the scorpion and the turtle? It goes something like this: A scorpion needs to cross a river. But it cannot swim. So it asks a turtle to ferry it across. To which the turtle replies, “No way. You’ll sting me. I won’t be able to swim. And then I’ll drown.”

But the scorpion assures the turtle it has nothing to worry about. “It wouldn’t make sense for me to sting you,” it says. “For if you were to drown, I would drown as well.”

The turtle is persuaded. And it agrees to carry the scorpion across the river. Alas, halfway across, the scorpion stings the turtle in the neck. To which the paralyzed turtle exclaims, “Why did you do that?”

And the scorpion replies, “I don’t know. I guess it’s just my nature.”

This tale comes to mind amid the public relations blitz by the nation’s trial lawyers in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks on New York City and D.C. The plaintiffs bar has promised not to profit from the hijackings of the four commercial jetliners on that dark and terrible day. Not to enrich itself from the tragic deaths at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and western Pennsylvania.

Leo Boyle, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, took the lead the day after the terror attacks, urging “a moratorium on civil lawsuits that might arise out of these horrendous events.”

A month later, Mr. Boyle’s association established a spinoff organization under the name Trial Lawyers Care (TLC). The new outfit promises to provide “free legal services” to terror victims who make claims under the federal September 11 Victims’ Compensation Fund.

The law, which President Bush signed 11 days after the terror attacks, entitles every injured victim and the family of every deceased victim to recover full economic damages and unrestricted damages for noneconomic pain and suffering.

There are no caps on the money paid out. And the claimants need not prove negligence, duty or causation. That means there is no need for any victim of the terror attacks (or the family of any of the victims) to file a lawsuit. And no need for lawyers to gin up legal fees.

Yet, you just know that some avaricious trial lawyer or another will eventually break the moratorium on terror-related lawsuits. And that the one terror-related lawsuit will lead to a rash of similar litigation. And that the trial lawyers will ultimately reap millions of dollars in legal fees stemming from the events in September.

Indeed, just this past June, trial lawyers representing Holocaust-era slave laborers divided up more than $52 million in legal fees among themselves. The biggest share of the award went to Melvyn Weiss, a partner in the New York law firm Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach.

His whopping $6.4 million payday is more than 850 times larger than the biggest check any one of the Nazi victims will receive. Yet, Mr. Weiss and his fellow trial lawyers do not think they were particularly well compensated for their work on behalf of Adolf Hitler’s slave laborers.

Then there’s the mother of all legal windfalls, the landmark settlement between the tobacco industry and 46 states. Just last month, trial lawyers representing New York were awarded a staggering $625 million in fees by the so-called Tobacco Fee Arbitration Panel. That brings to $12.4 billion the amount awarded by the panel to lawyers representing 18 states.

And what of the millions of patients, suffering from smoking-related illnesses, in whose name the tobacco settlement was struck? Not one of them will receive a compensatory check as a result of the settlement.

And the states that entered into an unholy alliance with the trial lawyers to shake down the tobacco industry have spent only a paltry 5 percent of their settlement money on smoking prevention and cessation programs, according to recent reports.

And that’s precisely the kind of legal bait-and-switch we can expect when the trial lawyers break their moratorium on terror-related lawsuits, when the courts are suddenly inundated with claims stemming from the horrendous events of September 11.

The trial lawyers will profess to be motivated not by lust for contingency fees, but by selfless compassion for the victims of the attacks.

Yet, when all the terror-related claims are settled, economic and other damages awarded, the trial lawyers will reap yet another multimillion (or billion) dollar windfall.

They simply cannot help themselves. It’s just their nature.

Joseph Perkins is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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