How many lawyers does it take to...?

Maryland's tobacco lawsuit has turned into a legal quagmire, in which every lawyer has a lawyer

May 07, 2000|By SCOTT SHANE

LAWYERS ARE supposed to remove the emotions from messy human disputes so they can be settled by the dispassionate rule of law.

Except that the lawyers come with their own emotions. And like firefighting buffs who turn out to be secret arsonists, those whose job is to help resolve disagreements sometimes prolong and expand them.

That seems to be the unfortunate case with Maryland's tobacco lawsuit. In a nutshell: The state lawyer who hired the lawyer to sue the tobacco companies later sued the lawyer he hired in a fee dispute, hiring another lawyer to represent him. Also, the lawyer the state lawyer hired had hired another lawyer who knew tobacco law, but who later sued the lawyer who hired him for a bigger share of the fee. And the lawyer the state lawyer hired naturally had to hire another lawyer to defend against the lawsuits of the tobacco-expert lawyer and the state lawyer.

Clear?

No?

In the spirit of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who devised a stick-figure diagram to simplify his criminal justice reform plan, The Sun is providing this handy diagram of the legal manpower deployed so far in pursuit of justice in the tobacco matter.

Once, eons ago, the case was about cigarettes -- the companies that sold them, the people who smoked them and got sick, and the taxpayers who paid their medical bills. Then the case was settled and Maryland learned its share of the deal would be more than $4.6 billion over 25 years. Suddenly, Peter G. Angelos' 25 percent legal fee meant well over $1 billion.

To understand the Himalayan scale of such a pile of money, it might help to consider that at $250 an hour, it would take one lawyer about 2,000 years of full-time work to earn $1 billion. If 100 such lawyers went to work on it, they could amass such a sum in 20 years.

The whiff of lucre on a scale unprecedented in Maryland legal history set off a desperate wrangle, with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. trying to force Angelos to collect his fee from the tobacco industry and thus preserve the billion for public purposes.

Angelos -- already fending off a lawsuit from a New Jersey lawyer seeking a piece of the fee -- stood on his contract and demanded his 25 percent. Each lawyer got a lawyer. And each lawyer's lawyer commenced firing barrages of pleadings.

It's easy to blame today's lawsuit-happy culture. But consider the observations back in 1853 of that one-time court stenographer Charles Dickens. In "Bleak House," Dickens describes the High Court of Chancery, where lawyers are "mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities..."

The case at the center of the novel's plot, Dickens writes, "has, in the course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises."

The Maryland tobacco case may be headed for such a fate, and this newspaper would like nothing more than to find someone to blame. But that might get awkward. Last week, seeking access to Curran's deposition, The Sun got its own lawyer to intervene in the case.

Dickens, who during a visit to Baltimore once dined on oysters on the very square where the city courthouse stands, would have understood how certain cases reach out and draw in anyone who stands too close.

Sun staff writer Scott Shane has covered Maryland's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Peter G. Angelos

March 1996: Contracted with Curran to handle state's tobacco case for 25 percent fee

March 1998: Disputed General Assembly action to reduce fee to 12.5 percent

November 1998: Initially agreed to seek legal fee from the tobacco industry

December 1999: Refused Curran's request to apply for industry-paid fee

December 1999: Hired Howell & Gately to defend against the state's lawsuit

Marc Z. Edell

December 1995: Hired by Angelos for tobacco expertise

February 1999: : Sued Angelos for a share legal fee in Maryland tobacco case

Baumeister & Samuels

February 1999: Hired by Marc Z. Edell to sue Angelos

Howell & Gately

February 1999: Hired by Angelos to defend against Edell lawsuit

December 1999: Hired by Angelos to defend against state's fee lawsuit

Mary R. Craig

May 2000: Hired by The Sun to seek access to Curran's deposition

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

May 1996: Filed suit against tobacco industry

November 1998: Agreed to join national tobacco settlement; Maryland's share is more than $4.6 billion

December 1999: Sued Angelos in dispute over legal fee

April 2000: Hired Hogan & Hartson to pursue lawsuit against Angelos

Hogan & Hartson

January 1996: Ralph S. Tyler, then deputy attorney general, leaves attorney general's office for Hogan & Hartson after working on tobacco lawsuit

April 2000: Hired by attorney general's office for lawsuit against Angelos over legal fee; Tyler handles case

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