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November 18, 2018

Ex-congresswoman could get payout from court tied to Silver

Judges have helped turn Manhattan’s special asbestos court into a gold mine for Sheldon Silver’s law firm — and a former Long Island congresswoman could also reap the rewards.

In a 2011 case brought by the ex-speaker’s firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, Justice Martin Shulman, Silver’s Lower East Side neighbor and fellow synagogue member, opened the floodgates for heavy smokers to win huge sums by blaming their lung cancer on asbestos. They include former Long Island Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, 71.

The retired lawmaker claims in a $100 million-plus lawsuit that she was exposed to the toxic chemical as a child when her father and brothers unwittingly brought asbestos fibers home from their shipyard jobs. The Democrat had smoked for 40 years. Silver’s firm filed her suit in 2013.

Silver, the disgraced Democratic kingmaker booted last week from the Assembly-speaker post he held for two decades, raked in $5.3 million in salary and referral fees from Weitz & Luxenberg despite doing no legal work.

In indicting Silver, US Attorney Preet Bharara called the cash bribes and kickbacks.

But those payments are peanuts next to the hundreds of millions the East Village firm netted while Silver, hired in 2002 for his “prestige and perceived power,” wielded huge influence over the state judiciary.

“Silver was gold. That’s why they hired Shelly,” said a source familiar with the firm.

A series of rulings by judges in New York City Asbestos Litigation, a special Supreme Court section known as NYCAL, have enriched the firm and paved the way for bigger settlements and verdicts, critics and experts say. The firm files more than half the NYCAL cases — and collects most of the winnings.

In a 2011 case, Shulman set high damages for two steamfitters — both smokers for more than 25 years — who worked with gaskets containing asbestos and later died of lung cancer. The jury found Goodyear Tire and Rubber and Goodyear Canada partially responsible. Shulman let stand an $8.5 million verdict for one man and cut another’s $13.5 million verdict to $6 million.

“There is no bigger gift he [Shulman] could have given to Weitz and Silver,” said an asbestos defense lawyer, who fears it set a precedent.

Phil Singer, a Weitz & Luxenberg spokesman, said smokers have a higher risk of cancer when exposed to asbestos, and that Shulman upheld the high award because of the workers’ “horrific pain and suffering.”

The average award for a NYCAL asbestos case — nearly $16 million per plaintiff between 2010 and 2014 — is two to three times larger than those in other courts nationwide, data show.

Weitz & Luxenberg could win millions more from a ruling by chief asbestos Justice Sherry Klein Heitler last year. At the firm’s urging, she lifted NYCAL’s 20-year moratorium on punitive damages.

NYCAL’s prior chief judge, Helen Freedman, had imposed the ban as “the fair thing to do” because wrongs were committed 20 or 30 years before, often by a predecessor company.

In lifting NYCAL’s ban, Heitler said punitive damages should be sought only in rare cases of egregious conduct. But Weitz & Luxenberg has since indicated it may seek the extra payments in every case.

The firm defended its victories. “The verdicts we’ve achieved are a direct result of these corporations’ outrageous misconduct and wanton disregard for their victims. They had nothing to do with Sheldon Silver,” Singer said.

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Ex-congresswoman could get payout from court tied to Silver

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