The adage goes, "there are two sides to every story."
In 2011, plaintiffs' attorney Susan Saladoff produced the film "Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served?" which criticized civil litigation reform and advocated issues and public relations positions favorable to the plaintiffs' bar.
This year, producer Brian Kelly released "InJustice: A Film About Greed & Corruption in America's Lawsuit Industry" which says "the law has become a business, not a profession" and lawsuits create huge social costs for farmers, small businesses, doctors, teachers and "affects everyone in their daily lives."
The film will be screened at Duling Hall in Fondren in Jackson on Thursday, June 7 as part of a nationwide tour.
The filmmakers say the "documentary shows how the class action lawsuit, born from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was skillfully managed by a small group of trial attorneys who manipulated legal rules, procedures and even their own clients - to become an international enterprise that rivals the scope and profits of Fortune 500 corporations."
Producer Brian Kelly recognizes that opponents of the film's message call it a "tort reform" movie, but he has said in interviews the documentary does not take a position on civil litigation reform but instead focuses on fraud and corruption in the lawsuit industry. The film features interviews with a number of Mississippians and relies on many events that unfolded here in the Magnolia State, which "InJustice" calls "ground zero for the class action machine."
I watched an early cut of the film which begins with a dramatic recreation of the FBI preparing the chambers of Judge Henry Lackey for his conversation with Timothy Balducci that provided the video evidence necessary to flip Balducci as a government witness and push the dominos that brought down Mississippi's King of Torts, Dickie Scruggs, along with a number of attorneys in a scandal that rocked the state.
Scruggs features prominently in the film through lawsuits ranging from asbestos to tobacco to Katrina insurance claims. According to the film, the success of Scruggs in asbestos - $300 million for his clients and $25 million for his firm - after previously trying only one case in court, set the standard in mass claims and was quickly duplicated around the country in asbestos, and later other products including pharmaceutical like Fen-Phen.
The film features Oxford and interviews Alan Lange (co-author of "Kings of Tort: The True Story of Dickie Scruggs, Paul Minor, and two decades of political and legal manipulation in Mississippi") and Curtis Wilkie (author of "The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America's Most Powerful Trial Lawyer") on the legal and political atmosphere in Mississippi.
The piece documents the efforts by Attorney General Mike Moore and Scruggs to sue on behalf of the states for Medicaid costs associated with tobacco to achieve $246 billion over 25 years for the states, $15 billion to lawyers (and an estimated $1 billion to the Scruggs firm) and zero dollars to smokers.
Other Mississippians interviewed for the project are: Johnny Jones, Grady Tollison, Jerry Mitchell and attorney Fred Krutz of Forman Perry Watkins Krutz & Tardy
Krutz describes the 2005 case before U.S. District Court Judge Janice Jack regarding silicosis ("the new asbestos") claims. Krutz said, "In an 18 month period between 2002 and 2004, over 20,000 silicosis claims were filed in a Mississippi court."
The standard procedure had been to settle claims like these but, according to Krutz, "Our clients decided, enough is enough, we've got to figure out a way, we can for the first time in mass tort history, prove that these litigation doctors, some plaintiff lawyers - not all - and these mass for-profit screening companies were manufacturing claims for money."
After confronting one doctor with the absurdity of the number of diagnoses per day, the doctor withdrew his representation that thousands of plaintiffs he certified actually had silicosis. Judge Jack summoned additional doctors to testify resulting in one asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination while on the stand. The lawsuit featuring thousands of plaintiffs for millions of dollars in claims collapsed under suspicion of fraud.
If you can't make it to Jackson for the screening, the trailer can be viewed at www.InJusticeTheFilm.com online and the movie will be released for purchase after its national tour.
So does this film present the other side of the story to "Hot Coffee"? Not exactly. It is a different side, but not a rebuttal. "Hot Coffee" goes after McDonald's, assails lawsuit caps, criticizes judicial elections and attacks arbitration.
"InJustice" spends less time (perhaps zero time) on civil litigation reform or policy, and instead draws attention to corruption and fraud perpetrated by specific individuals. Those on the tort reform side can promote the film, but that is something honest trial lawyers can support, too.
Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.