Friday, August 29, 2008

When It Comes to Making a Buck

by Horace Cooper ( as published by Estate of Denial

Attorneys are renowned for their innovativeness and creativity when it Comes to making a buck. We all remember a few years ago when a clever lawyer was able to exact a $2.9 million judgment after his client spilled a hot cup of coffee on herself. And it was national news when a lawyer filed a $67 million lawsuit against his dry cleaners in a dispute over his favorite pair of trousers. But he wasn’t so fortunate. His lawsuit failed. Notably however the media neglected to report that defending against the suit almost bankrupted the dry cleaner costing the owner-operators nearly $400K in the process.

The sad fact is the unbelievable creativity and audacity of trial lawyers represents a poor state of affairs for the rest of us. And it’s only getting worse. There now appears to be yet another new trend in civil litigation. I call it “celebrity sharking.” It’s what happens when slick and relatively unknown lawyers with names like Howard K. Stern and Jon Eardley find ways to insinuate themselves into the lives of celebrities. Not merely hangers on like Kato Kaelin, this new breed of shark uses his connection with the celebrity as an entre to all manner of litigation opportunities for himself.

Out of nowhere small town lawyer Jon Eardley showed up in a federal district court in California attempting to wrest control of the Britney Spears conservatorship case. According to published reports Eardley claims he was hired by Spears in a telephone conversation and he swears that he is acting in her best interest. And even after an adverse ruling in federal court – to wit, “you’re not Britney Spears’ lawyer” – Eardley continues undaunted. Recently, he filed a new action in the state court this time attempting to appeal the decision granting Spears’ father control over the troubled singer’s business and personal affairs. Allegedly this conversation took place while Britney Spears was legally competent to enter into a contract so we have the prospect, win or lose, that she’ll have to pay for the lawyers on both sides of the challenge of her own conservatorship.

And where does one start with the legal Svengali Howard K. Stern? For living the mantra, “no lawsuit left behind”, he should get the award for the lawyer most able to stretch and twist the legal system. The faux baby daddy of Anna Nicole Smith, Stern has engaged in a series of lawsuits purportedly on her behalf. Starting with a dog of a case, the decade long dispute over her deceased husband’s billion dollar estate (which has churned millions in litigation fees for both sides), Stern is a veritable litigation lottery. Even while losing the case at nearly every stage along the way and getting a narrow reprieve from the Supreme Court he has managed to run the score in litigation fees. Along the way he discovered a cornucopia of new suits to file on her behalf. And even after Anna Nicole Smith’s death Stern managed to grab the legal responsibilities of handling her estate and even the financial interests of her young daughter Dannielynn.

While “celebrity sharking” is just the latest example of a very troubling trend in our justice system, win or lose the efforts of the trial bar impose tremendous costs on the judicial system and the society at large. Just over the last 50 years we’ve seen a 100 fold increase in civil justice costs from less than $2 billion in 1950 to $205 billion in 2001. This has far outstripped our nation’s overall economic growth by at least a factor of three. End result: it raises the costs for all of us and delays the courts ability to deal with legitimate matters.

Mind you, while I like every American is thankful that toilet cleaner brushes now carry helpful labels reminding us that they are “not for personal hygiene use” or that contraceptive jellies are not to be used on melba toast. The thing is, many of us who were able to figure these things out on our own are beginning to wonder if the costs for this new found “help” is worth it.

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