Attorney General Alan Lance has signed a contract with one of the nation’s most successful class action, personal injury lawyers to handle Idaho’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
On the same day he quietly filed the suit in 4th District Court last month, Lance notified the state Board of Examiners that he had appointed Steve Berman of Seattle as a special deputy attorney general to represent Idaho against the tobacco industry, according to board records.
“If we were to go to trial, we would have the greatly expanded resources of people who are all expert in this type of case,” Deputy Attorney General David High said.
The fees will be paid by the tobacco industry if the proposed national settlement with the states wins federal approval or from any damages awarded the state if Idaho’s lawsuit actually goes to trial or is settled separately, High said. Mississippi settled its claim for $3.6 billion on Thursday to assure its compensation even if the national settlement is torpedoed.
Berman, who characterizes his legal practice as “representing victims versus corporate America,” has earned a reputation for winning substantial settlements from defendants in class action suits without going to trial.
In 1995, he and his wife each gave President Clinton $1,000 for his re-election campaign, but he also gave Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania $1,000 for his failed run at the GOP nomination, reflecting his claim that he is “not a party person.”
Berman was the lead negotiator in the $275 million settlement with Louisiana-Pacific Corp. for homeowners who bought defective siding, and most recently forced U S West Communications to agree to pay $2.3 million as compensation for area code problems that Western Washington companies claimed cost them business.
Berman also got the corporate owner of Jack in the Box to pay $12 million to shareholders, who claimed the quality of the fast food was misrepresented in a stock prospectus issued before the outbreak of E. coli in early 1993. Three Washington children died and more than 500 other people got sick after eating undercooked and contaminated Jack in the Box hamburgers.
Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire, one of the negotiators of June’s proposed $368 billion tobacco industry settlement with the states, brought Berman in 13 months ago when her state became the ninth to seek reimbursement for tax money spent to treat smoking-related illnesses.
High said Berman is also representing another half dozen of the 41 states that eventually joined the legal action against Big Tobacco before the settlement was negotiated.
Berman brings with him other experts in class action and personal injury litigation, whom he has linked up with during the legal battle with the tobacco industry. They are Ronald Motley of Charleston, S.C.; Richard Scruggs of Pascagoula, Miss.; Robert Carey of Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Steve Mitchell of Phoenix. Records show the board was also notified by Lance on June 9 that those four were appointed special attorneys general.
Under the contract with Idaho, Berman will receive $100,000, paid by the industry, if the national settlement is enacted.
High said that if that deal goes sour - and there is opposition from groups believing it does not go far enough - Berman will receive a percentage of damages he either negotiates or wins at trial for the state.
That payment begins with 15 percent of any award up to $50 million with the percentage going to Berman declining on amounts above that.
State officials estimated Idaho spends about $10 million annually treating smoking-related illnesses.
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