August 30th, 2010

New York Times Bashes Lawyers (And Forgets History)

In an editorial today regarding the BP oil spill in the Gulf, the New York Times decided to take potshots at lawyers and assume that they would breach their ethics. In doing so, they elected to act like the New York Post by simply ignoring history and accepting one long running newspaper meme:  No one ever lost a nickel by bashing lawyers, because when we defend ourselves we sound like, well, lawyers.

The context of today’s assult is the $20B in funds offered up by BP to settle Gulf claims, and management of the fund by Ken Feinberg. Feinberg has quite the recent portfolio, managing this fund, being the “pay czar” for companies that were bailed out by the government during the recession (from which he stepped down to become engaged here), and also managing distribution of an extraordinary $700M+ funds related to settlement of claims related to 10,000 responders to the September 11 attack.

So what did the Times do? In an editorial today it discussed the virtues of the new fund being run by Feinberg, and that this was preferable to lawsuits. The paper then went on to claim:

Given his reputation, experience, and the amount of money on the table, it is clearly in the interests of every victim of this spill to give this program a careful, unemotional look. We probably cannot expect the lawyers to act responsibly.

The Times‘ justification for this assault is the presumption that, if one is going to go through the BP fund, then one doesn’t need a lawyer. In so claiming, the Times displays either its utter ignorance of proving the elements of an economic loss, or it elects to turn a blind eye. Because all claims are not equal. Some are difficult and need experts. The shrimper with the W2 is one thing, and the new business owner who was making investments in the business at the time BP recklessly wrecked Gulf waters is something else. Proving that future loss won’t be easy.

And it isn’t just shrimpers and beach resort businesses that are hurt, because as they go down, so too do the brick layers and bread makers that depend on those people. An entire economy suffers, and proving the relationship to the oil spill won’t be simple for many. There will be a billion shades of gray for the manner in which people were affected by the spill.

Does the Times seems to suggest that Feinberg will simply pay claims without the expert analysis that’s needed in the evaluations? Will the  claims simply leap off the table and magically prove themselves to Feinberg without effort?

In one sense, this is like a trial on damages only, with liability already established. But you still must prove those damages to the finder of fact. Perhaps many of the claims are simple. Most assuredly, many are not. Only a fool would walk into the forum unarmed.

The outrageousness of the Times‘ lawyer bashing is brought home with the irony of Feinberg’s involvement. For he also oversaw the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and has been, to nearly universal acclaim, an outstanding public servant. And that 9/11 Fund saw over 1,000 lawyers working as part of Trial Lawyers Care, representing most of those directly injured in the attack and the families of those killed. Those lawyers did so on a pro bono basis.  It was then, and remains today, the largest distribution of free legal services in the country, and I was a proud (albeit small) part of it. Nobody knows better than Feinberg about the extraordinary efforts put forth by the legal profession.

And yet, the Times merely assumes that, despite history to the contrary, lawyers will act unethically by giving advice that is contrary to the interests of their clients. I expect such crap from the Post, not the Times. Perhaps the usual editorial writers were away this week on vacation, and they left the interns in charge. For the piece surely wasn’t written by anyone with a lick of common sense.


June 11th, 2009

Ken Feinberg: The New Human Punching Bag

You have to admire the mettle of the man. Kenneth Feinberg is stepping into a new role that comes with this one thankless guarantee: No matter what he does people will hate him.

The President called and he answered the call. But the role that he fills is one of overseeing executive compensation for companies that had been bailed out by the government, to see that taxpayer money isn’t wasted on overpaying executives.

Is that easy? Of course not. Many revile the policy and the whole concept of such stringent government oversight. And that means, as the government’s delegated front man on the issue, that he will suffer the slings and arrows of angry people. People will yell that he allowed too much compensation for greedy execs while others will scream that it was not enough to woo talented people. He’s gonna get it coming and going.

His job will be utterly thankless.

When he stepped into his role as Special Master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund he also had problems. Some thought it unfair that the families of high income executives received vastly more than those from more humble positions. And others said the families of the high earners didn’t get their due because their earnings were so high. As I said previously, I thought he was an extraodianry public servant.

This time, though, he won’t have the back-drop of a nation under attack. He has a recession. I expect he will hear much more in the way of hardball assaults since the raw emotion and immediacy of September 11th won’t be with us. He’s certainly got guts to stick his body into the path of the flailing assaults he will no doubt see.

But in the deep background there is this to consider: Feinberg was picked both by the very conservative team of John Ashcroft and George Bush as well as the present administration. So there are people out there, on both sides of the aisle, who see Feinberg as a fair man that will do his best with integrity. And that ain’t bad.

Elsewhere: D.C. Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg to Serve as Pay Czar (Elefant @ Legal Blog Watch)


September 12th, 2007

The Days After September 11th — A Tribute To An Attorney

I didn’t feel like writing or talking yesterday about my experiences and feelings on September 11, 2001. I rarely do, even though I was in the city at the time.

But writing about the days after is something different. And in that regard, one lawyer I had the pleasure of meeting deserves a tribute: Kenneth Feinberg.

Feinberg was the Special Master that ran the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and was responsible for establishing the awards for over 7,300 claims, including over 4,400 for physical injury. But he didn’t just administer the program. He actually conducted many of the hearings. From before dawn until after dusk, in cities throughout the country, he sat in rooms and personally listened to one horror story after another of broken families. According to the final report (p. 73):

During the course of the Fund, 3,962 hearings were held. Of these hearings, the Special Master conducted 931.

Feinberg didn’t just absorb the stories and make the financial decisions, but he also navigated through a ton of abuse from traumatized families due to the way Congress had so quickly set the fund up, which was beyond his control. How well did he do it? Charles Wolf, whose wife died in the north tower, was furious at the start and turned to the web to vent his feelings and rally anti-fund support, but then renamed his critical web site called “Fix the Fund” to “The Fund is Fixed!” He wrote to Feinberg,

“To have one of your sharpest critics follow through on a promise and not only join the program he was criticizing, but promote it to his peers, says a lot about you and the way you have adjusted both the program and your attitude. Today, I have complete faith in you.”

And he did all of it pro bono for almost three years, through the intense anger and raw emotion of family after family after family.

The fund was set up, if you recall, when the airline lobby raced into the Capitol to scream for immunity from litigation immediately after the attack, regardless of any negligent conduct they may have had that allowed the terrorists to breach their security. The planes had about $1.6B in insurance each, which was enough to cover people on the plane but not people or property on the ground. Bankruptcy was a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the American Association for Justice (ATLA at the time), under then President Leo Boyle, had called for a moratorium on any litigation as a result of the attack. When alerted to what the airlines were doing, they insisted to Congress that the injured and families of the dead should not be abandoned while a bailout was given to potentially negligent airlines.

Thus, the fund was born with an airline bailout on one hand, and guaranteed payments to the injured and families of the dead, regardless of fault, on the other. This deal came with the provision that if people participated in the fund they waived their rights to any lawsuit and waived any appeal of the fund’s decision. The fund had 98% participation. A few victims declined to participate and their trials will start shortly.

And in response to the formation of the fund, AAJ gave birth to Trial Lawyers Care. With over 1,000 trial attorneys from every state in the Union, it was the largest pro bono offer of legal services ever created. I was honored to have played a tiny part of this effort estimated at $200M in donated legal services.

I appeared before Feinberg in one of my two hearings — a woman from one WTC building with a head injury she incurred while escaping down a stairwell. And the one thing that occurred to me more than anything else as we sat there, was that he had to have extraordinary intestinal fortitude to listen to so many horror stories, day after day, week after week, month after month. The many boxes of tissues that stood at the ready in the hearing room spoke volumes.

And so I think it is fitting to tip my hat in Ken Feinberg’s direction. In fact, it is fitting for all lawyers to tip their hats in his direction. Not on September 11 when the victims are remembered. But for his contributions in the days after when he got to work.

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(Eric Turkewitz is a personal injury attorney in New York)