Senate spurns limit on fees in smoking suits Issue appears dead

vote on tobacco bill could come next week

June 12, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in a month, the Senate rejected a Republican proposal yesterday to limit the fees that lawyers could collect from successful lawsuits against tobacco companies.

The issue was one of the few critical ones remaining before the Senate in the comprehensive tobacco legislation, probably the biggest and most contentious bill before Congress this year.

The Senate is not likely to consider the issue of legal fees again in connection with this bill, which has been in the Senate for debate since the middle of May. Indications were that a final vote could come next week.

Complaining that some trial lawyers stand to make tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from tobacco lawsuits, Republicans tried and failed May 18 to impose a $250-an-hour limit on legal fees.

Yesterday, they raised the limit to $1,000 an hour and still lost, on a vote of 50-45. Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes voted with the majority to table the amendment.

Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, a Republican who was the chief sponsor of the amendment, declared that lawyers should be ashamed for seeking such large fees.

"The federal government," he declared, "cannot put its stamp on legislation that diverts billions of dollars from taxpayers to pay trial lawyers grossly excessive fees."

Republican Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming said he was flabbergasted that anyone could object to such a high ceiling on legal payments. "A thousand dollars an hour!" he declared. "There are a lot of people in my state who don't make that much in a month."

But Democratic Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina countered that the trial lawyers were heroes, not villains, having taken enormous risks in challenging the cigarette makers, and should not have their compensation limited.

The lawyers brought suits "when we were asleep at the switch," he said, making a sweeping gesture at the Senate chamber, "not doing anything about children smoking."

A former trial lawyer, Hollings expressed contempt for "the corporate billable-hour fellow sitting on his duff and charging for it."

The anti-smoking bill before the Senate would still establish an arbitration panel to decide the proper fees in successful suits against cigarette companies.

The Senate also voted yesterday for a Democratic amendment to set aside some of the money raised from the higher prices on cigarettes to give grants to states for child-care programs.

One thousand dollars an hour is much more than even the most elite lawyers who charge by the hour earn. But those who sue the tobacco companies spend large amounts of time and their own money, and they make nothing if the suits are unsuccessful.

The archetype of the lawyer who took that kind of risk is Richard Scruggs, who put up $5 million of his own money to bring Mississippi's suit against the tobacco industry. The industry settled with the state last year for $3.3 billion.

So far, Scruggs has received nothing. He has said that his fee will be determined by arbitrators.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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