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The King of Torts by John Grisham


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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One likely outcome of wide readership of John Grisham’s new novel, The King of Torts, is that more people will be in favor of tort reform. In his typical clumsy style, Grisham transforms protagonist Clay Carter from public defender to king of torts with no real character development. The evil tort lawyers just aren’t evil enough. Clay’s adolescent behavior at his former girlfriend, Rebecca’s wedding, makes us even more confused about his character. But then again, we read Grisham because everyone else is, not because he’s good. The King of Torts will be popular, but it has a predictable plot, and even Grisham has done better before. So unless you have to read what everyone else is, or are a real Grisham fan, take a pass.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 128-31) of Clay at a tort lawyers workshop:

The only nine o’clock session on Saturday morning was an update on class-action legislation currently being debated in Congress. The topic drew a small crowd. For $5,000, Clay was determined to soak up as much as he could. Of the few present, he appeared to be the only one without a hangover. Tall cups of steaming coffee were being drained around the ballroom.

The speaker was a lawyer/lobbyist from Washington who got off to a bad start by telling two dirty jokes, both of which bombed. The crowd was all-white, all-male, a regular fraternity, but not in the mood for tasteless jokes. The presentation quickly went from bad humor to boredom. However, at least for Clay, the materials were somewhat interesting and mildly informative; he knew very little about class actions so everything was new.

At ten, he had to choose between a panel discussion on the latest in Skinny Ben developments and a presentation by a lawyer whose speciality was lead paint, a topic that sounded rather dull to Clay, so he went with the former. The room was full. Skinny Ben was the nickname of an infamous obesity pill that had been prescribed for millions of patients. Its maker had pocketed billions and had been poised to own the world when problems began developing in a significant number of users. Heart problems, easily traceable to the drug. Litigation exploded overnight and the company had no desire to go to trial. Its pockets were deep and it began buying off the plaintiffs with huge settlements. For the past three years, mass tort lawyers from all fifty states had been scrambling to sign up Skinny Ben cases.

Four lawyers sat at a table with a moderator and faced the crowd. The seat next to Clay was empty until a feisty little lawyer rushed in at the last moment and wedged himself between the rows. He unpacked his briefcase—legal pads, seminar materials, two cell phones, and a pager. When his command post was properly arranged and Clay had inched as far away as possible, he whispered, "Good morning."

"Morning," Clay whispered back, not at all anxious to chat. He looked at the cell phones and wondered who, exactly, might he want to call at 10 A.M. on a Saturday.

"How many cases you got?" the lawyer whispered again.

An interesting question, and one Clay was certainly not prepared to answer. He had just finished the Tarvan cases and was plotting his Dyloft assault, but, at the moment, he had no cases whatsover. But such an answer was quite insufficient in the current environment where all numbers were huge and exaggerated.

"Couple of dozen," he lied.

The guy frowned, as if this was completely unacceptable, and the conversation was iced, at least for a few minutes. One of the panelists began talking and the entire room became still. His topic was the financial report on Healthy Living, manufacturer of Skinny Bens. The company had several divisions, most of which were profitable. The stock price had not suffered. In fact, after each major settlement the stock held its own, proof that investors knew the company had plenty of cash.

"That's Patton French," the lawyer next to him whispered.

"Who's he?" Clay asked.

"Hottest mass tort lawyer in the country. Three hundred million in fees last year."

"He's the luncheon speaker, isn't he?"

"Right, don't miss it."

Mr. French explained, in excruciating detail, that approximately three hundred thousand Skinny Ben cases had been settled for about $7.5 billion. He, along with other experts, estimated that there were maybe another hundred thousand cases out there worth somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. The company and its insurers had plenty of cash to cover these lawsuits, and so it was up to those in the room to hustle on out there and find the rest of the cases. This fired up the crowd.

Clay had no desire to jump into the pit. He couldn't get past the fact that the short, pudgy, pompous little jerk with the microphone made $300 million in fees last year and was still so motivated to earn even more. The discussion drifted into creative ways to attract new clients. One panelist had made so much money that he had two doctors on his payroll full-time to do nothing but go from town to town screening those who'd taken Skinny Bens. Another had relied solely on television advertising, a topic that interested Clay for a moment but soon dissolved into a sad debate as to whether the lawyer should appear on television himself or hire some washed-up actor.

Oddly missing was any discussion about trial strategies—expert witnesses, whistle-blowers, jury selections, medical proof—the usual information lawyers exchanged at seminars. Clay was learning that these cases seldom went to trial. Courtroom skills were not important. It was all about hustling cases. And making huge fees. At various points during the discussion, all four panelists and several of those tossing up softball questions couldn't help but reveal that they had made millions in recent settlements.

Clay wanted to take another shower.

At eleven, the local Porsche dealer held a Bloody-Mary reception that was wildly popular. Raw oysters and Bloody Marys and nonstop chatter about how many cases one had. And how to get more. A thousand here, two thousand there. Evidently, the popular tactic was to round up as many cases as possible, then tag team with Patton French who'd be happy to include them in his own personal class action in his backyard over in Mississippi, where the judges and juries and verdicts always went his way and the manufacturer was terrified to set foot.

French worked the crowd like a Chicago ward boss.

He spoke again at one, after a buffet lunch featuring Cajun food and Dixie Beer. His cheeks were red, his tongue loose and colorful. Without notes he launched into a brief history of the American tort system and how crucial it was in protecting the masses from the greed and corruption of big corporations that make dangerous products. And, while he was at it, he didn't like insurance companies and banks and multinationals and Republicans, either. Unbridled capitalism created the need for people like those hardy souls in the Circle of Barristers, those down in the trenches who were unafraid to attack big business on behalf of the working people, the little people.

At $300 million a year in fees, it was hard to picture Patton French as an underdog. But he was playing to the crowd. Clay glanced around and wondered, not for the first time, if he was the only sane one there. Were these people so blinded by the money that they honestly believed themselves to be defenders of the poor and the sick?

Most of them owned jets!

French's war stories poured forth effortlessly. A $400 million class-action settlement for a bad cholesterol drug. A billion for a diabetes drug that killed at least a hundred patients. For faulty electrical wiring put in two hundred thousand homes that caused fifteen hundred fires killing seventeen people and burning another forty, $150 million. The lawyers hung on every word. Sprinkled throughout were indications of where his money had gone. "That cost 'em a new Gulfstream, ,, he cracked at one point and the crowd actually applauded. Clay knew, after hanging around the Royal Sonesta for less than twenty-four hours, that a Gulfstream was the finest of all personal jets and a new one sold for about $45 million.

If you enjoyed that excerpt, there’s three hundred more pages like it in The King of Torts. Read if you must.

Steve Hopkins, February 28, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: King of Torts.htm


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