Panel Assesses Complex Class-Action Cases

Experts gather at Columbia Law School for an in-depth look at class-action lawsuits and mass tort litigation

Fall 2011

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As part of this June’s Reunion 2011 weekend, several experts in class-action and mass tort litigation gathered to discuss challenges and recent developments in the field. Professor John C. Coffee Jr. moderated the panel discussion, which was organized by U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein ’48.

In addition to Weinstein, the panel included U.S. District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ’56, 9/11 claims administrator and Lecturer-in-Law Kenneth R. Feinberg, Law School Professor Bert Huang, Pfizer General Counsel Amy Schulman, and Elizabeth Cabraser of Lieff, Cabraser, Hellman & Bernstein.

Weinstein, who has co-authored a mass torts casebook with Feinberg, has presided over a variety of notable mass tort cases, including those involving Agent Orange, breast implants, tobacco, and asbestos.

During the discussion, Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York explained why he denied class-action status to more than 10,000 plaintiffs allegedly affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“A class action gives extreme power to the class lawyer, and a judge is at the mercy of the lawyer in terms of which cases to advance, [and] which to settle,” Hellerstein said. “I quickly understood that these were an accumulation of different kinds of cases.” He eventually fostered a settlement to distribute $625 million to more than 10,000 rescue workers affected by dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Feinberg, whom Hellerstein appointed to hear appeals relating to the settlement, noted the difficulty and delicacy of working with those involved in class-action cases.

“Unless you give the plaintiff or the claimants some say in his or her result, the very credibility of the rule of law, and particularly that settlement, is called into question,” he explained.

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