A $300 million settlement of federal claims over PCB contamination in Anniston, Ala., will give plaintiffs an average of $7,725 each while paying their attorneys millions apiece — including $29 million to the firm of California celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
The numbers, revealed in court documents and letters that plaintiffs are receiving this week, have provoked a furor in the east Alabama city, where many people already are seething over decades of pollution.
David Baker, a local activist who helped craft the case, said Tuesday he and his wife have received death threats over their role, and dozens of people vented their anger at a community meeting Monday night.
Attorneys involved in the case said about 27 lawyers, working for eight different law firms, would share the $120 million approved for legal fees. That works out to an average payment of more than $4 million for each lawyer.
After the attorneys and other costs are paid, the 18,447 plaintiffs will get an average of $7,725 and as little as $500 each, according to documents from claims administrator Ed Gentle.
For its share of the fees, Cochran’s firm recruited plaintiffs with TV commercials and a community meeting and helped guide the litigation.
The largest legal payment went to the firm of former Alabama Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley of Montgomery, which received $34 million. Beasley, a lead attorney in the case, said none of the payments were excessive and his firm reduced its typical rate by 5 percent.
“The fees were approved by the court and they are not out of line for a case of that magnitude,” he said Tuesday. “I think we got a good result.”
Some aren’t buying the explanation.
Beverly Carmichael received a standing ovation at the community meeting held Monday when she challenged the size of lawyers’ payments.
“I know one thing that will solve all the problems we’ve been having, if the attorneys gave us half the money back,” The Anniston Star quoted her as saying.
U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham and Circuit Judge Joel Laird of Anniston approved settlements reached last year between Monsanto Co., its spinoff company Solutia, and more than 20,000 plaintiffs.
The settlements provided the $300 million in the federal court case in Birmingham, plus another $300 million in the state court case that Laird handled. Both involved lawsuits filed by people who claimed pollution from a factory that made PCBs in Anniston endangered their health or damaged their property.
PCBs, or polycholorinated biphenyls, were long used in electrical equipment until studies raised questions about health risks. The Anniston plant quit making PCBs in the 1970s.
In the state court case, the $300 million was set aside to settle about 3,500 claims, with $114 million going to lawyers and $15 million for expenses. In the federal case, the $300 million went to resolve claims by 18,447 people — five times as many as in the state case.
Many people with state claims received payments exceeding $200,000 because of the fewer number of plaintiffs. Also, a state jury already had awarded more than $100 million in verdicts when the agreement was reached.
The federal lawsuit had not gone to trial at the time of the settlement — making it harder to determine their value — and the larger pool of plaintiffs reduced the overall worth of each claim.
03/23/2004 Jay Reeves, boston.com