The Deadman Night Rider

A forum for evening students of the SMU Dedman School of Law and other outlaws..

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Let's have more trial lawyers like these guys (or at least more lawsuits)

Don't worry--hell hasn't frozen over. But in the last couple of weeks, I've run across two types of lawsuits that give me some hope that the plaintiffs' bar isn't totally irredeemable.

The first one: civil actions against State Farm for denial of Katrina insurance claims in Mississippi based on false engineering reports. ABC ran a big story this week on 20/20 about two whistle-blower adjusters who claim to have evidence that State Farm coerced engineering firms into changing their reports to show damage from rising water as opposed to wind.

If you didn't see it, it was pretty compelling: they even interviwed a PE for one of the engineering firms who had copies of his report as he prepared it and as it appeared in State Farm's files. It had been edited to substitute rising water for wind as the cause of damage, then signed again with the PE's name, but in different handwriting. The best part, though, was footage of all of these houses--some of them now only bare foundations--that supposedly suffered no wind damage surrounded by flattened trees and telephone poles.

The only bad thing here is that the lead attorney going after State Farm is one of the tobacco suit ringleaders, but at least that might mean that there are sufficient resources to take this fight down to the end.

The second instance of 'trial lawyers gone good' is more interesting from a legal standpoint: RICO suits against employers for hiring illegal workers. Here's a summary of the argument from one of the leading cases (Mohawk Industries, Inc. v. Williams, Shirley et al.):

In 2004, four hourly employees of Mohawk Industries, Inc. filed suit in federal court in Georgia, claiming that the hiring of undocumented immigrants depressed their wages and cost them thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation.

Mohawk Industries is the nation’s second-largest manufacturer of rugs and carpeting and is known to consumers through the carpet companies it owns, including Alexander Smith, Bigelow, and Karastan. It is a fixture in northwest Georgia, where it has been for 120 years. It now employs more than 30,000 people.

Of the states that don’t share a border with Mexico, Georgia has seen the largest growth in its undocumented immigrant population over the last five years, according to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-DC-based group that espouses “a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.”

According to their attorney, Howard Foster, the workers discovered that Mohawk executives had conspired to bring the immigrants to Georgia from out of state, arranged for them to be housed with legal Mohawk employees, and then hired the illegal workers on a reduced pay scale.

This, claimed the legal employees, reduced the number of available jobs and put tremendous pressure on them to work for similarly poor wages. They also believed that the hiring of undocumented workers had the effect of deterring them from seeking worker’s compensation claims for fear of losing their jobs.

Finally, the employees contend that Mohawk broke federal and state racketeering laws when it colluded with third-party agencies in Brownsville, Texas, to hire the undocumented immigrants. To hide evidence of the deals, the employees say Mohawk destroyed a number of documents and records along the way.

This case recently went up to the Supreme Court on a technical issue on how to apply the RICO statute and got remanded back down to the 11th Circuit, but it would be great if we could see more suits along this line. As we've seen from the "cheeseburger" lawsuits, just the threat of litigation can spur changes in behavior--with suits like these, maybe we can accomplish something a little more meaningful than getting McDonald's to serve apple dippers.


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