Suing lawyers: A new twist on the tort reform story
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
May 25, 2003
I had occasion this week to write an unusual story for the Wayne County News, a sister paper to the south also owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.
What made it unusual is that it looked at the tort reform debate in Mississippi and lawsuits against prescription drug companies, a sore spot for both sides, from a new angle.
The story was about three people who had filed a $470 million lawsuit against four sets of lawyers. Two sets were in Pascagoula and Dallas, Texas. The third was J. Keith Shelton of Waynesboro and the fourth was Langston, Sweet &Freese of Jackson.
The Jackson law firm is one of the state's most prominent. Shane Langston is the immediate past president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association and a virulent opponent of tort reform in Mississippi.
The lawsuit was filed May 16 in Wayne County Circuit Court.
The plaintiffs contend that the Jackson firm hired Shelton to help solicit clients for lawsuits against finance companies and the makers of prescription drugs like Fen-phen, Rezulin, Propulsid, Vioxx and Celebrex.
In turn, they claim, Shelton hired them to do the actual legwork in return for reimbursement of expenses and 10 percent of any settlements. The plaintiffs say they worked diligently between 2000 and 2002 when Shelton announced he had no intention of paying them.
The lawsuit asks for $75 million in actual and compensatory damages and more than $396 million in punitive damages "in order to punish the defendants for their actions and to deter such activities in the future."
More just like it
I was not able to reach the plaintiffs' attorney before the story ran, but I spoke with him later in the week.
It turns out that Kevin Muhammad of Fayette also represents, or has represented, clients who have filed two more almost identical lawsuits against Langston, Sweet &Freese.
The first was filed in April 2003 in Jefferson County Circuit Court. The plaintiff in this case said he worked for more than two years to help solicit clients in Langston, Sweet &Freese lawsuits. His agreement with the Jackson firm, he claimed, called for him to receive not less than $1.5 million, or more than $4 million, in return for his services.
The complaint sought $15 million in compensatory damages and $80 million in punitive damages.
It lasted one day. Muhammad claims someone got to the plaintiff and convinced him to drop the lawsuit and he's filed a lawsuit of his own against the Jackson firm asserting that its partners and/or employees interfered with his client.
Later in April, Muhammad filed against Langston, Sweet &Freese on behalf of clients in Jasper County. Same scenario, except the plaintiffs in this lawsuit say they were promised a $150,000 fee.
The complaint seeks $2 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.
I won't even get into another lawsuit he filed in April against attorney Richard Schwartz of Jackson. I'm sure you recognize the name from his ubiquitous television commercials. This complaint concerns another pharmaceutical lawsuit but alleges a different kind of fraud.
I don't have enough information about Muhammad's practice to know whether he specializes in suing other lawyers, but he certainly doesn't mind it.
These clients, he says, were turned down by other firms: "I'm not a rogue lawyer, but people have a right to representation, even if it's against another attorney."
Outspoken does not begin to describe Muhammad. There's language in his lawsuits the likes of which I have never seen. Here's a sample:
This is the kind of racially inflammatory lawyer's comment that Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeals criticized earlier this week as they overturned the state's $145 billion settlement against Philip Morris USA and other tobacco companies.
It should also be noted that these lawsuits, which represent only one side in a dispute, are based on alleged oral agreements between attorneys and people hired to drum up clients for lawsuits.
In the end, I don't really know what to make of Kevin Muhammad. I can't decide whether to admire him for being that in-your-face or criticize him for showing insufficient respect for the court system.
Will his clients prevail?
Time will tell.