I’d Walk a Mile for a Fee

Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice

by Peter Pringle
Henry Holt, 352 pp., $27.50

In parts of the country where labor unions are weak, especially the Deep South, the organized left consists mainly of personal-injury lawyers. They obtain, in a few dramatic cases, the economic redistribution that is out of reach by legislation. The leading personal-injury lawyers are rich, confident, aggressive people who are big political contributors and therefore are in close consultation with Democratic politicians. They try wholeheartedly to influence the direction of government and often succeed. The form of the tobacco-control legislation now before Congress makes sense only if the bill is understood as a product of the power of trial lawyers.

The true father of the tobacco bill is not its author, Senator John McCain, but a lawyer in the Gulf Coast town of Pascagoula, Mississippi, named Dick Scruggs. Scruggs made a substantial fortune suing asbestos companies, on behalf first of workers with lung disease and then of the state of Mississippi’s program to remove asbestos from public buildings. Plaintiffs’ lawyers generally charge their clients no fee up front but collect a big share of the damages if they win. Scruggs made $5 million from the state asbestos case alone. By the early Nineties, the time of the opening of Peter Pringle’s Cornered, he owned a Learjet, two mansions on the beach in Pascagoula, another house in Key West, and two yachts—a typical array of possessions for a leading member of the plaintiffs’ bar. He is an active Republican, but in 1996 he contributed $40,000 to national Democratic Party campaign organizations, and his law firm contributed another $20,000. He has no trouble getting the attention of officials in either party.

It is exemplary of the clubby relationship between trial lawyers and politicians that Scruggs is close to Mississippi’s ambitious young attorney general, Michael Moore—their friendship dates back to their student days at Ole Miss. Moore hired Scruggs to try the state’s asbestos case and was pleased with the result. In 1993, another Mississippi trial lawyer called Moore to suggest that the state sue the tobacco companies to recover the Medicaid expenses associated with smoking. Moore put him in touch with Scruggs, who by now was well acquainted with the ins and outs of lung disease litigation. By the end of the year Scruggs was working on a Mississippi lawsuit against the tobacco industry. S. 1414, the Universal Tobacco Settlement Act of 1998, is a lineal descendant of this suit.

The first scientific experiment to demonstrate that tar from cigarette smoke causes cancer in mice was conducted by Ernst Wynder of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 1953. During the forty years between Wynder’s study and the Mississippi lawsuit, cigarette manufacturers had an amazingly successful run in the courts. As Pringle says: “The figures spoke for themselves. Eight hundred and thirteen claims filed against the industry, twenty-three tried in court, two lost, both overturned on appeal. Not a penny paid in damages.” The industry’s strategy was a tobacco version of the Colin Powell doctrine in military affairs: clear mission, overwhelming force. The…

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