This past year, public nuisance lawsuits have spiraled out of control in California. Cities like San Diego, Berkeley and Los Angeles have been convinced to sue U.S. companies for enormous sums. Trial lawyers, looking to win big, scour the state and the nation for potential plaintiffs and then recruit municipalities to partner with them to file suits against businesses.
Pandora was let out of the box in 2002 when Santa Clara County and Orange County, using private plaintiff’s lawyers to bring the charge, sued lead paint manufacturers under a public nuisance theory – even though the paint manufacturers didn’t know about problems with lead paint at the time they sold it. After that, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office used public nuisance theory to sue drug manufacturers for the costs of unemployment, emergency room visits and other social services. The idea was that people took prescription painkillers, then got addicted, then the prescription ran out, then they switched to heroin, then they lost their jobs and ended up in the emergency room without insurance, so the drugmakers should pay for the county’s unemployment and ER costs. The judge dismissed the case because the FDA regulates prescription drugs, because some patients really do need painkillers and because it’s not appropriate for local prosecutors partnering with private plaintiff’s lawyers to do the oversight and regulation that appropriately belongs to the federal government.
Along with other cities, San Diego has entered the fray. By partnering with a plaintiff’s firm, the city doesn’t have to pay for the expense of investigating and prosecuting the case – those costs are fronted by the trial lawyer firm. But this partnership is ethically suspect.
Continue reading at the San Diego Union-Tribune.