Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review May 30, 2001 / 8 Sivan, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Will Grisham soon be unemployed? In America's courts these days, there's no room left over for legal fiction -- REMEMBER "Runaway Jury"? The novel, set in Mississippi, conjured up a tale of tobacco litigation so predacious and wild that its author, John Grisham won praise the world over for his imaginative gifts.

Nowadays, though, it's becoming clear that it doesn't take the powers of a Grisham to produce outrageous yarns about Big Tobacco's courtroom life. All you have to do is report the news.

Consider a current case in the courtroom of Lamar Pickard, a county judge in Fayette, Mississippi. Judge Pickard will be reviewing charges brought by Owens Corning against the tobacco industry, deciding in coming weeks whether the case ought to be allowed to proceed to trial, and, if so, whether the trial will take place in his own Jefferson County.

The case of Owens Corning vs RJ Reynolds, et al. qualifies as fantastic - or absurd - for at least two reasons.

The first is that it is Owens Corning, and not a former smoker, that is chasing those nasty old tobacco firms. The firm, you see, was itself sued to death - it sought bankruptcy protection this past winter -because it used asbestos in the manufacture of building insulation before 1972. Workers who breathed in the hazardous substance over a period of years later contracted lung cancer and asbestosis, a lung-scarring disease.

Now officers of Owens Corning, or its remains, hope to unload some of the multi-billion dollar obligation onto someone else. And that someone is the tobacco companies, whose product also could have had a role in generating in at least some of the illness of the construction workers. In legalese, these are known as "synergistic claims".

The Owens Corning suit seeks therefore to recover "tobacco's share" of the liability, which the firm's expert reckons to be around $2.2bn. In addition Owens Corning also would like more - ten times more - as "restitution" for the costs the tobacco companies allegedly avoided by staying out of the asbestos litigation in the first place. In other words, this pot isn't just calling the kettle black. It is also suing the kettle.

The second fabulous aspect of the case though is its venue, humble Jefferson County. This poor section of a poor state (half the people live below the poverty line, fewer than half of jurors are secondary school graduates) has become such a popular spot for trial actions that the National Law Journal recently dubbed it a "Mecca for Tort Suits".

This strange claim to fame stems from a peculiarity of the local law. Mississippi legislation allows the tort wolves to assemble plaintiffs all over the country under the nation's most plaintiff-friendly roof, which happens to be Mississippi. It also offers another advantage. Recently federal courts have made it virtually impossible to bring a class action lawsuit for personal injury claims, the theory being that the claims differ too much from one another. But in Mississippi, again due to local law, it's still possible to aggregate large groups in single cases, thereby upping the potential scale of the attorney's fees geometrically. So tort lawyers will do just about anything - even work through a hot Mississippi summer - to sue in Mississippi. The second reason for Jefferson County's popularity will be familiar to "Runaway Jury" readers: juries across America may be generous in their awards, but few are so generous as Mississippi's. And Mississippi juries are reputed to be particularly hostile to out-of-state defendants.

As a result, as the National Law Journal reports, not only this tobacco case but also numerous drug case against drugs well-known as Fen-phen, Rezulin and Propulsid- have also been filed in Fayette. Because Mississippi law also says that a local vendor must be named in these suits, the poor proprietor of the Bankston Drugstore on Fayette's Main Street has been forced to defend herself in not one but any number of giant pharma actions.

No wonder Mr Grisham turned to the Korean War, the St Louis Cardinals, and farm life when looking for a setting for his new bestseller, "The Painted House". With places like Jefferson County around, there's no room left over for legal fiction.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


05/22/01: Republicans sample the rhetoric of confidence
05/16/01: Boeing has been promised $60m to site its headquarters in Illinois. The deal looks a poor one for taxpayers
05/14/01: Adam Smith in love
05/09/01: Those rotten Russian capitalists
05/07/01: Why tax havens provide shelter for everyone
05/04/01: Middle classes pay for get-the-rich folly
05/01/01: Money can't buy happiness? Think again.
04/26/01: Calling America's rogues and entrepreneurs
04/19/01: High earners right to feel lonely at the top
04/11/01: The right must learn the comfort of strangers
04/04/01: When domestic law arrives by the back door
03/30/01: A Lexus tax cut suits the jalopy driver
03/27/01: The unchallenged dominance of King Dollar
03/20/01: Natural selection of an intellectual aristocracy
03/16/01: The hidden danger of a regulatory recession
03/14/01: Is the American condition that boring? Why so many Oscar nominated movies aren't set in America
03/07/01: Trampling on the theory of path dependence
03/05/01: Fighting the good fight
03/01/01: It is time for Fannie and Freddie to grow up
02/27/01: IT's important
02/22/01: The guilty conscience of America's millionaires
02/14/01: The benefits of helping the 'rich'
02/09/01: The Danger and Promise of the Bush Schools Plan
02/05/01: Crack and Compassion
01/31/01: Debt is good
01/29/01: Clueless
01/24/01: A gloomy end for a half-hearted undertaking
01/17/01: The challenge of an ally with its own mind
01/15/01: An unexpected American family portrait
01/10/01: A fitting legacy for America's beloved dictator
01/08/01: The trick of tax 'convenience'
01/03/01: Time to stop blaming Greenspan over taxes
12/11/00: So smart they're dumb
12/06/00: How economic bad news came good for Bush
12/04/00: The Boies factor
11/30/00: "The inevitable demands for recounts erupted like acne…"
11/28/00: Fair play and the rules of the electoral game
11/23/00: The shining prospect beyond a cloudy election
11/21/00: Try the Cleveland model
11/16/00: A surprising winner emerges in the US election
11/09/00: Those powerful expats
11/07/00: What's right for America versus what works
11/02/00: Time to turn off big government's autopilot
10/30/00: Canada beating America in financial sensibility
10/26/00: When progressiveness leads to backwardness
10/24/00: The most accurate poll
10/19/00: The Middle East tells us the hawks were right
10/17/00: The split personalities of America's super rich
10/10/00: 'Equity Rights' or Wake up and Smell the Starbucks
10/04/00: Trapped in the basement of global capitalism
09/21/00: The final act of a grand presidential tragedy
09/21/00: Europeans strike back at the fuel tax monster. Should Americans follow?
09/18/00: First steps to success
09/13/00: America rejects the human rights transplant
09/07/00: Minimum wage, maximum cost
09/05/00: Prudent Al Gore plans some serious spending
08/31/00: A revolution fails to bring power to the people
08/28/00: A reali$tic poll
08/21/00: "I Goofed"
08/16/00: Part of the union, but not part of the party
08/09/00: Silicon Alley Secrets
08/02/00: Radical Republicans warm up for Philadelphia
07/31/00: I'll Cry if I Want To
07/27/00: Cold warrior of the new world
07/25/00: The Estate Tax will drop dead
07/18/00: Shooting down the anti-missile defence myths
07/14/00: A convenient punchbag for America's leaders
07/07/00: How to destroy the pharmaceutical industry
07/05/00: Patriots and bleeding hearts
06/30/00: Candidates beware: New Washington consensus on robust growth stands the old wisdom on its head
06/28/00: White America's flight to educational quality
06/26/00: How Hillary inspired the feminist infobabes

© 2001, Financial Times