November 19, 2018

Silver’s law firm rakes in cash as asbestos court fast-tracks claims

Sheldon Silver has perverted the courts as well as the Capitol.

His law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, gets its asbestos cases — and paydays — moved more quickly than those of other attorneys, and reaps a fortune from favorable rulings by friendly judges, charge lawyers and tort-reform advocates.

Silver’s East Village firm handles more than half the cases in a special section of Manhattan Supreme Court called NYCAL (New York City Asbestos Litigation). So dominant is the firm, the court’s Web site refers to cases as “Weitz” or “non-Weitz.”

The chief asbestos judge, Sherry Klein Heitler — also Manhattan’s chief civil judge — has handled dozens of Weitz & Luxenberg cases.

“They’ve taken over a section of the courthouse, and the people in charge of the courthouse run it for them,” said a disgusted lawyer who files personal-injury cases in Manhattan. “It pours money into the firm.”

The firm told investigators it hired Silver, who has no experience in asbestos cases, in 2002, because it hoped to “increase the firm’s prestige and perceived power,” according to last week’s federal indictment charging Silver raked in about $4 million in bribes and kickbacks.

That perceived power has paid off, critics say.

Last year, at Weitz & Luxenberg’s request, Heitler reversed a 20-year rule barring punitive damages in asbestos cases, paving the way for much bigger jury awards and putting pressure on defendants to settle.

Another judge, Joan Madden, consolidated unrelated asbestos cases. Joining up to seven plaintiffs has resulted in huge increases in NYCAL jury verdicts — from an average of $7 million to $24 million per plaintiff between 2010 and 2014, data collected by Bates White Economic Consulting show.

Last year, Weitz & Luxenberg won a record $190 million in a consolidated trial for five mesothelioma victims who worked in different jobs for different employers.

Of 15 mesothelioma verdicts in the last four years, Silver’s firm won $273.5 million of $313.5 million awarded by NYCAL juries. Law firms usually take a third.

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, Bates White reported last month at an asbestos law conference in New York.

Conference speakers included Heitler, Madden and Perry Weitz, Silver’s law partner and a founder of Weitz & Luxenberg.

Last month, the American Tort Reform Association branded NYCAL the nation’s top “judicial hellhole,” saying it’s rife with plaintiff attorneys “brazenly favored by the judges.”

The group largely blames Silver, who not only has killed any tort reform, such as efforts to limit claims and cap damages, in Albany, but wields enormous power over the judiciary.

“Imagine you’re a judge and you know the person in front of you litigating in asbestos court is also responsible in some way for your career,” said Tom Stebbins, a spokesman for the New York Lawsuit Reform Alliance, which also faults Silver.

As Assembly speaker since 1994, Silver names one of 13 members to a state judicial screening committee. The panel recommends candidates for the governor’s appointment to the Court of Claims and Appellate Division and other judge vacancies.

In 2008, Silver named his law partner and another Weitz & Luxenberg founder, Arthur Luxenberg, to the committee, ignoring the blatant conflict of interest.

Silver also plays a key role, along with Gov. Cuomo and the state Senate majority leader, in negotiating the judiciary’s budget. In 2011, Silver’s appointee to a seven-member state commission cast the deciding vote to give all state judges a 27 percent pay hike.

As one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, Silver also strongly influences his party’s nomination of candidates for judgeships in Manhattan and elsewhere. Heitler and Madden are both Democrats, and both first ran for the bench during Silver’s tenure as speaker.

“He has a hand in judicial appointments, and judges know not to bite the hand that feeds them,” said Mark Behrens, a DC attorney who advocates for asbestos-litigation reform for defendants.

To top all that, Silver and New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman are boyhood chums from the Lower East Side.

Lippman, who has been the chief administrative judge for all New York state courts since 2009, can assign judges to top administrative positions and plum posts.

Heitler was promoted to Manhattan’s chief administrative judge in 2009, a post she holds in addition to running asbestos court.

Sources say Weitz & Luxenberg gets the “red-carpet treatment” in Manhattan, including “more experienced and better judges” in the asbestos court.

One lawyer said he recently showed up to start a trial.

“In walked the Weitz & Luxenberg lawyers,” he said. The entire pool of 150 potential jurors was herded into their courtrooms.

“A jury clerk told us, ‘The asbestos cases are taking priority. You have to wait,’ ” the lawyer recalled, griping that his trial was delayed four days until another batch of jurors became available.

“All the other lawyers — and their clients — are getting screwed,” he said.

State courts spokesman David Bookstaver said Friday that he could not reach anyone to explain the alleged jury hogging.

Weitz & Luxenberg filed 53 percent of the NYCAL mesothelioma cases and 74 percent of the lung-cancer cases from 2011 to 2013, Bates White found.

Besides the landmark $190 million award, the firm last June won $25 million for two workers exposed to asbestos insulation, and $20 million for the family of a former ship fitter who died.

The indictment says Silver pocketed $5.3 million from Weitz & Luxenberg without ever doing legal work — as he was paid a yearly salary of $120,000 (for a total $1.4 million since 2002) and $3.9 million in “referral fees.”

Silver allegedly drummed up plaintiffs — and referral fees — by having Columbia University Medical Center cancer researcher Dr. Robert Taub funnel mesothelioma patients to the firm.

In return, Silver allegedly steered $500,000 in taxpayer-funded grants to Taub and $25,000 in state funds to a nonprofit employing Taub’s wife and a helped find a job for Taub’s son at a different nonprofit.

Dr. Taub has been fired.

Additional reporting by Isabel Vincent

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Silver’s law firm rakes in cash as asbestos court fast-tracks claims

State Senate passes asbestos labeling – Fri, 15 Mar 2013 PST

Asbestos at home

Asbestos has been used by some manufacturers in common home-construction products. It might be listed as “mineral fibers” or chrysotile, a type of white asbestos. Or it might not be listed at all.

OLYMPIA – People buying supplies for a home remodeling project might not realize that they have asbestos in them. The state Senate says the product should say so right on the label.

A proposal to require such labeling, sponsored by a Spokane senator, passed on a 47-2 vote this week. If the House agrees, labels on everything from wallboard to shingles to floor tiles to caulk would have to say if there’s asbestos inside.

The idea for that bill came from the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency staff, which inspects demolition sites to make sure asbestos isn’t getting into the air, among other reasons.

“This has been an issue for a while,” said Bill Dameworth, agency director. It’s not usually a problem when wallboard goes up or shingles go on, but it can be a problem when they are torn out and release asbestos into the air.

That’s a known problem for buildings constructed through the latter half of the last century. It’s not as well known for newer buildings or remodeled structures, Dameworth said. “It’s kind of hard to find a building that you’re going to demolish that doesn’t have a lot of asbestos in it.”

Asbestos was banned from 1989 to 1991 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but since that time has been used by some manufacturers in common home-construction products. It might be listed as “mineral fibers” or chrysotile, a type of white asbestos. Or it might not be listed at all.

The agency’s board of directors at one point thought about banning such products in Spokane County, but after study, they decided it made more sense to require labeling so consumers would know what they were buying and make their own choices.

Dameworth contacted Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, with the idea for such a law. A bill was drafted and received a hearing in the Senate Energy Committee, which heard testimony from Dameworth and others and was sent to the Senate floor.

It’s an example of legislation following the route described in basic civics classes, Billig said.

In reality that’s the exception rather than the rule in Olympia, where bills are often suggested by powerful interest groups and are worked and reworked for political advantage as they move through the committee and onto the floor.

Billig admitted to colleagues he was surprised it was even possible to buy building materials with asbestos. Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the committee checked with such retail outlets as Home Depot and Lowe’s, who didn’t consider the labels a burden. “We’re not going down the scare route,” Ericksen added.

In minutes, Democrats and all but two Republicans in the Senate said yes, and it was among dozens of bills sent to the House on Wednesday.

Dameworth said he thinks consumers would be glad to know what’s in their products. If there’s a negative reaction to products containing asbestos, smart manufacturers will start marketing products without it, he said.

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State Senate passes asbestos labeling – Fri, 15 Mar 2013 PST