Tort Lawyers and Attorneys General: A Corruptible Combination

Like former high school football stars in middle age, plaintiffs’ attorneys, who make their money by taking a percentage of the damage awards to clients, have been trying to relive their glory days of tobacco settlements. Back in the 1990s, five Texas lawyers earned $3.3 billion, a firm in Tampa scored $3.4 billion and a Mississippi attorney made an estimated $1.6 billion.

The lawyers’ playbook: team up with state attorneys general (AGs) to sue businesses.

“The novel, liability-expanding theories underlying these lawsuits are often developed by private lawyers, then ‘pitched’ to state attorneys general as money-making enterprises,” according to a 2013 reportby the Institute for Legal Reform of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Over the past 20 years, plaintiffs’ attorneys applied this model to lawsuits against drug, financial-services, food, financial companies and more – with some success, but never on the scale of tobacco. Now, some tort lawyers believe they have found a new pot of gold: suing energy companies for supposedly worsening the effects of climate change on local communities.

But that gambit appears to be backfiring. The municipal clients of the tort lawyers may themselves end up on the receiving end of lawsuits – filed by angry bondholders and ordinary taxpayers. It’s a sordid tale, but with a nice twist.

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