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February 19, 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.

More:  

Ex-congresswoman could get payout from court tied to Silver

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