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The Tort Bar’s Senate Undertaker

Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2017

It’s good to be a Senator, especially if you are a Republican who is the most important opponent of tort reform on Capitol Hill. Witness the largesse that the plaintiffs bar is bestowing on South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham in its moment of maximum political peril.

On Thursday Mr. Graham was feted in Houston at a fundraiser hosted by Mark Lanier, who can afford it. The Lanier Law Firm has vacuumed up some $13 billion in tort verdicts over the years from Vioxx to asbestos. The invitation asks Mr. Lanier’s tort comrades to share their wealth to the tune of $500 to $5,400 for “Team Graham.”

“Our goal is to show Senator Graham an appreciation from both sides of the bar for what he can help do, especially with tort reform running rampant from the house,” Mr. Lanier added in an email. “It will take Senator Graham to help educate folks and lead the charge from the Republican side.”

Mr. Graham has every right to take campaign cash from all comers, and in this case he is a true believer. He’s long fought tort reform, and his legal friends have rewarded him with some $3.7 million over his 24-year Senate career.

Now his services are truly needed, like Bonasera the undertaker in “The Godfather.” Mr. Lanier wants Mr. Graham to use all of his powers, all of his skills, to bury at least two bills that have passed the House that address major tort-bar abuses.

The Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act would crack down on trial-attorney fees that are many times larger than the payout to the class of litigants they represent. The Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act would require the nation’s 60-some asbestos trusts to provide courts the records of trust payouts. This would reduce the plaintiffs bar practice of “double dipping”—secretly raiding the trusts while also pursuing claims via lawsuits. In court they claim the company they’re suing caused asbestos disease, but to the trusts they blame the defunct company financing the trust.

Senator Graham is on the Judiciary Committee where Republicans hold a mere 11-9 majority. His defection on any tort bill would result in a tie that could kill it. Chairman Chuck Grassley will be loathe to move bills that he knows will fail, so Mr. Graham can whisper to Mr. Grassley that he is undecided and perhaps never have to take a vote.

Mr. Graham’s office didn’t respond to our request for comment about the Lanier event, but Mr. Grassley should take his reform bills to the Senate floor despite a tie vote in committee. Even if the bills are defeated, Senators would have to go on record. In any case the trial bar will get its money’s worth from Thursday.