Where’s the justification in outrageous contingency fees?

Ralph Voss
The Unterrified Democrat

It would be difficult to find someone that has not heard about the duck boat accident near Branson that resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Most people have also heard about the lawsuits filed by family members of those who died.

The first lawsuit was filed on behalf of members of the Coleman family from Indiana, which suffered the loss of nine of the 11 family members on the boat at the time it sank. The family is asking for $100 million in damages. 

A second lawsuit was filed by three daughters of a couple that also died in the accident. In this column I will be focusing on the first lawsuit (the Colemans) because this is where the action will be centered.

The cases are interesting for a variety of reasons. First, the principal defendant has virtually unlimited resources — something lawyers refer to as “deep pockets.” 

The duck boat company that operated the business was purchased recently by Ripley Entertainment, an outgrowth of the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Ripley is a very large operation, but small in comparison to its parent, The Jim Pattison Group of Vancouver, Canada.

Pattison is the largest car dealer in western Canada, as well as the owner of numerous Peterbilt and John Deere dealerships, along with food and media companies. The parent has 45,000 employees scattered across North America, with annual sales of $10 billion (Canadian). One division of Ripley Entertainment is Great Wolf Lodge, a favorite hangout for our grandkids.

It’s worth noting the Coleman family’s attorneys also named Herschend Family Entertainment as a defendant for its role in designing and manufacturing the duck boat that sank last month. Herschend Family is the owner of Silver Dollar City, hence another deep pocket.

The civil justice system has been stood on its head by trial lawyers. Is the purpose of the system to give a fair recovery to those who have been damaged by someone’s negligent or intentional acts or is the purpose to enrich trial lawyers?

In many cases it’s obvious trial lawyers are much more interested in their fees than their clients’ fair recovery.

For the plaintiffs’ attorneys to be justified in charging a contingency fee on the entire amount of money paid by defendant(s), the attorneys legally have to be able to show the plaintiffs were entitled to nothing until the attorneys came on board. Does that make sense? 

Is there any doubt in your mind Ripley Entertainment would gladly pay an obscene amount of money to put this behind them, regardless of the attorneys on the other side.

The attorneys for the Colemans have filed a 45-page petition in federal court laying out the reasons why their clients should recover. The attorneys do a good job…possibly too good for their own good. They try to make it appear — with some success — that they have a slam-dunk case. If their case is truly a slam dunk, then where is the justification for their huge fees. Making their fees more unconscionable is that Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has confirmed that his office is investigating the case for possible criminal action under Missouri’s consumer protection law.

Hawley needs to widen his investigation. No consumers are more in need of protection than clients of trial lawyers. 

For the attorneys to charge a one-third or 40-percemt contingency fee in such a clear-cut case is wrong. A contingency fee is not warranted. Remember, a contingency fee is justified only if there is a possibility of non-recovery and if plaintiffs must wait a long time to recover.

In this case the attorneys more than likely will not have to wait long to recover a large amount of money. If they charge one-third or more under those conditions, Hawley should be investigating them.

Rest assured Hawley will never do that. He and Claire McCaskill, who will be his main opponent this fall in the U.S. Senate race, are both compromised by the trial lawyers.

But the real culprits here are the members of the Missouri Supreme Court, who should be controlling contingency fees but are not. To get action in this area, the thing to do is vote against the Supreme Court judges up for retention this November. They are Mary Rhodes Russell, who was appointed in 2004 by Democratic Governor Bob Holden, and Wesley Brent Powell, who was named to the court in 2017 by Republican Governor Eric Greitens.