California is home to innovation, from advances in the movie industry to the development of the iPad. But not all innovations here are beneficial, and some of the “innovations” of California’s lawyers are nothing but attempts to get large settlements or win large verdicts.
Those innovations are one reason why California was yet again named one of the worst “Judicial Hellholes” in the nation. We’ve all heard about the crazy lawsuits against food manufacturers that are filed here in California, such as lawsuits about a footlong Subway sandwich not measuring exactly one foot. But the Judicial Hellholes report also highlights an especially troubling trend: contingency-fee lawyers prospecting on the backs of taxpayers by using “public nuisance” lawsuits to sue entire industries looking of a big payday.
For years now, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has been watching the progress of a lawsuit against paint manufacturers who in the early 1900s manufactured paint with lead-based pigments, a product specified for use on government buildings and repeatedly endorsed by federal, state, and local governments until the mid-1970s. In this case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys – who are working on a contingency fee and have profit, not public health as a motive – have creatively alleged that paint manufacturers violated the state’s public nuisance laws, creating a much lower bar for liability and thus a much easier way to make money.
Unfortunately, the judge in this case bought this absurd argument hook, line and sinker, and awarded $1.15 billion to the plaintiffs – of which 17 percent will go to the contingency fee lawyers who took this case on – nearly $200 million. And while the lawyers are laughing all the way to the bank, California’s homeowners will suffer the consequences of this decision. That’s because the decision labels all homes built before 1981 with lead paint inside them in the ten plaintiff cities and counties as “public nuisances,” – a decision that could “precipitate the worst plunge in California home values since the housing crash of 2007,” according to Giuseppe Veneziano, president of the Los Angeles County Boards of Real Estate.
There may be even more far-reaching effects. The judge’s decision in this case requires inspectors to look for evidence of lead paint in pre-1981 homes, forcing occupants to vacate their homes and relocate until safety is restored to the satisfaction of authorities. This ruling will affect 2.6 million homes in Los Angeles County alone, and an estimated 5 million homes statewide. How long will it take to inspect all those homes? What will the effect be on the value of those homes until inspection and abatement is complete? Will there be a lasting effect on home values even after abatement takes place? These questions remain unanswered but the results could be catastrophic for California homeowners, as well as the local governments that rely on property taxes to provide services.
But those are just minor details to lawyers looking for a payday. In fact the windfall victory has encouraged other lawyers to try to cash in, too. Contingency fee lawyers have convinced two counties in California (Orange and Santa Clara) and Cook County in Illinois to sue the pharmaceutical industry using the same “public nuisance” argument regarding the use of opioid-based drugs.
These lawsuits are textbook examples of one of the biggest problems facing our lawsuit system – it mainly serves the interests of lawyers rather than ordinary people. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to all of us to take a stand against this abuse of our courts. We need to challenge our elected leaders to take a stand against these brazen attempts to get wealthy through lawsuits. After all, our court should be used to make people whole – not rich.