Bill would force tobacco attorneys to give $9 billion to states
Lawyers in a landmark tobacco lawsuit could be forced to give $9 billion in fees to the states they represented, according to legislation introduced Thursday by two Republican senators.
"We should not unreasonably enrich trial lawyers at the expense of states suffering severe financial crises," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
The proposal would impose a 200 percent tax on payments to lawyers that exceed five times the "reasonable" rate, which would vary by jurisdiction. In big cities lawyers still could make more than $2,500 an hour.
The lawyers who won a $246 billion settlement from the nation's big tobacco companies are the primary target, but the tax would apply to lawyers in any case with awards exceeding $100 million.
"This legislation will combat the gross abuse of attorney contingent fee agreements, abuses which we have been witnessing at an increasing rate in recent years," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Trial lawyers, including those in the tobacco case, were not pleased. "Gutter politics," declared John Coale, who was involved in early efforts against the tobacco companies and now is suing gun makers. "Is there any cap on the profits of the tobacco industry?"
Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said the money paid to the tobacco lawyers did not come reduce the amount going to the states.
The settlement set up a three-member panel to decide what the state's private attorneys would be paid. The tobacco companies are paying $500 million a year toward the total.
"Fundamentally, this is once again a 'Washington-knows-best' kind of philosophy," Carl said.
If the bill passes, the two senators say California would get $1 billion, Texas $667 million and New York $607 million, down to Wyoming and its $15 million share.