As most people suspect, many personal injury lawyers are on the lookout for new ways to use — and sometimes abuse — the law. At times our laws — an instrument of justice – becomes a vehicle for personal gain. We often hear anecdotal stories about the shenanigans that take place behind the scenes, but rarely do we get to see the absurd tactics used by some personal injury lawyers aired in open court. That is, until now.
A few recent lawsuits have generated national headlines that highlight astonishing examples of lax ethics by some personal injury lawyers and that have led to renewed calls for Congress to investigate the U.S. lawsuit industry.
One of the most egregious examples, recently featured in a New York Times article, shows candid footage in which attorney Steven Donziger openly admits to a slew of questionable tactics he and his legal team used to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation during an ongoing legal battle with Chevron in Ecuador.
Why would he do such a thing? Mr. Donziger is part of a growing trend of plaintiffs’ attorneys who have begun inviting cameras into their “war rooms” to film one-sided documentaries that will later be used to promote their cases and pressure settlements. But after a federal judge forced filmmakers to turn over more than 500 hours of outtakes from the film, “Crude,” Mr. Donziger’s plan backfired and the public got a real behind-the-scenes look at the unethical deception and outright corruption that can happen in multi-billion-dollar cases such as this.
In one outtake, Mr. Donziger discusses plans to stage a huge protest at the courthouse. “We have concluded that we need to do more, politically, to control the court—to pressure the court. We believe they make decisions based on who they fear the most—not based on what the laws should dictate. So what we want to do is take over the court with a massive protest…”
In another outtake, when asked if the judge presiding over the case will be killed if he rules against the plaintiffs, Donziger says, “He might not be, but he thinks he will be, which is just as good.”
And in yet another damning video clip, he argues with his own colleagues who suggest they don’t have enough evidence to show actual contamination in the case. “Hold on a second—this is Ecuador, okay. You can say whatever you want, but at the end of the day, if there’s a thousand people around the courthouse, you’re going to get what you want. I’m sorry, but it’s true… At the end of the day, this is all for the court just a bunch of smoke and mirrors… It really is. We have enough to get money, to win.”
The release of the outtakes has sent “shockwaves through the nation’s legal communities,” wrote one federal judge in New Mexico in a recent opinion, “primarily because the footage shows, with unflattering frankness, inappropriate, unethical and perhaps illegal conduct.”
Meanwhile, another judge described the outtakes as “extraordinary evidence” which suggests that plaintiffs’ lawyers “presented false evidence and engaged in other misconduct.”
This case should not be viewed as a standalone instance of bad behavior. Rather it is a symptom of a legal system that invites, and in many cases rewards, unscrupulous attorneys. While it’s rare that the public gets such a candid view of it, the truth is the personal injury lawyers have been exploiting the legal system in the United States and around the world for years. It’s time that lawmakers in Washington, who say they’re dedicated to reinvigorating the economy and creating jobs, investigate the outrageous litigation practices that have become the norm in our society and drag down our economy.