Private attorneys to get $250 million for their work

Thursday, May 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A national arbitration panel, citing the "prodigious efforts" of the private attorneys who handled Oklahoma's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, has ordered that they be handsomely rewarded.

The Tobacco Fee Arbitration Panel voted unanimously Wednesday to award the attorneys $250 million. The findings of the three-member panel are final and cannot be appealed by any party.

"Under the totality of circumstances, we are convinced that Oklahoma private counsel contributed significantly to pressures which led to the MSA -- more than has been demonstrated to us in many prior proceedings," the arbitrators wrote.

The panel cited the pressures created "through court rulings, disclosures, the boldness of their pleadings and most importantly, laboring tirelessly and successfully to make their case trial ready."

The tobacco industry will pay the award over several years, with 60 percent going to out-of-state attorneys who represented Oklahoma and the rest -- $100 million -- going to the state's team of private lawyers in Oklahoma.

None of the money will be paid by the state or come out of $2.3 billion Oklahoma is expected to receive during the next 25 years as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement, or MSA, finalized in 1998.

"They will be paid by the wrongdoers and not the state of Oklahoma," Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.

He said $150 million of the award will be split by two national law firms -- Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson and Poole of Charleston, S.C.; and Scruggs, Millette of Pascagoula, Miss.

Former District Judge Preston A. Trimble of Norman will receive $10 million, and $30 million will go to each of three Oklahoma law firms -- Riggs, Abney of Tulsa and Oklahoma City; Norman, Edem of Oklahoma City; and Pray, Walker of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

The three-member arbitration panel held two days of hearings in New York on the Oklahoma attorney fees in mid-March. Oklahoma was the ninth arbitration heard by the panel.

In voting for the $250 million award, the arbitrators praised the state's lawyers for their work and for setting precedents that probably helped speed a national tobacco settlement.

Oklahoma's team of private lawyers spent $3.9 million in litigation expenses and put together a force of 244 people, including 89 lawyers, the panel said

"They estimated local Oklahoma counsel spent between 65,000 and 70,000 hours of work on the case," the arbitration panel said.

"The industry not only conceded 100,000 hours total time for Oklahoma private outside counsel, including national counsel, but often used Oklahoma as an example of a state which brought an action and pushed it toward trial."

The arbitrators said the risk that Oklahoma's private attorneys faced "was extreme throughout the litigation, and continued right up to the time the settlement agreement was reached."

"The kind of risk involved in this litigation can destroy a law firm, and can create enormous stress and dissension within a firm," they said.