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Monday, August 20, 2007

Should bridge victims get legal representation for free?

Several local plaintiffs' lawyers recently set the bar buzzing when they made a highly unusual offer -- they would handle the cases of victims from 35W bridge collapse without taking a fee. (Under a typical fee agreement in a personal-injury or wrongful death case, the client would agree to pay the lawyer anywhere between a third and 40 percent of the amount recovered.)

The offer to take the cases pro bono surfaced not long after it had been announced that the Minneapolis personal-injury powerhouse firm of Schwebel Goetz & Sieben had signed up several bridge-collapse victims as clients. The Schwebel firm is not part of the pro bono effort and will represent its clients pursuant to a standard contingent-fee agreement.

One of the firms spearheading the pro bono effort is Minneapolis-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which, ironically, pocketed one of the biggest fees in state history a few years back when it got $440 million for handling the state's $6 billion tobacco settlement. The Robins firm has already signed up several several bridge victims as clients, none of whom it is charging a fee.

The pro bono representation offer has the potential to generate some positive PR for trial lawyers -- or at least avoid some negative PR. There are plenty of individuals out there -- some of whom have already posted on this blog -- poised to cast lawyers as vultures seeking to capitalize on the bridge tragedy.

On the other hand, while it would be easy to criticize the Schwebel firm for not waiving its fee, personal injury lawyers do have a right to make a living. And these are likely to be very complicated cases involving a web of immunity, damage-cap and statute-of-limitations issues. Plus, while what happened to these people is horrific, many individuals who suffer equally terrible injuries or deaths still have a legal fee extracted from their or their families' recoveries. Why shouldn't we be waiving fees in those cases as well?

I don't have any answers here, but think the situation raises some pretty interesting issues. (Minnesota Lawyer has a full coverage of the pro bono offer in this week's issue.)

1 comment:

bobby said...

WIld guess, but I think about 600 people die in auto accidents in Minnesota every year. Almost two every day, then . . .

Many of them leave families in dire financial straits - I'm guessing many in worse straits than many of the bridge victims' families.

So, why the difference?

I'm a cynic, I guess. I say it's that the bridge collapse is a media event, while the 600 or so other Minnesota traffic deaths garnered, maybe, 3 inches in the paper.