At what point does lawyerly risk-taking in the public interest become crass ambulance chasing?
Before we consider today's case -- personal injury law firms hovering over last week's late-night crash landing of Air Canada Flight 624 -- let's layer in some context.
In 2013, the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper won an $887-million class action lawsuit on behalf of disabled veterans and their families. For 30 years, successive federal governments had clawed back their benefits. The law firm took on Ottawa's bottomless pockets. Its lawyers rang up 8,500 potentially un-billable hours -- $3.2 million -- over six years to hold the government to account.
They won, and were rewarded for their effort.
But they could as easily have lost it all.
So too with Wagners, another Halifax law firm. It spent 16 years fighting provincial governments for compensation for hundreds of physically and sexually abused children at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Besides providing "total free" legal services during those years, the firm spent $500,000 to pursue the case. Its lawyers eventually won $34 million in settlements for the victims and were awarded $5.78 million in legal fees.
Those cases would never have been heard -- and justice done for powerless victims -- if those law firms hadn't taken a risk.
How does that compare to Flight 624?
Well, Air Canada has already ponied up $5,000 to each of the 133 passengers for their inconvenience. Everyone understands that is both proactive PR and an opening gambit. The airline will inevitably pay more. How much is the question. The answer will be determined, in part, by the success of now competing law firms eager to represent the passengers.
"Eager" because this is a win-win. The airline will settle, likely out of court. The law firm will get a good payday.
But do such cases -- and settlements -- serve the public interest? Or simply make us a more needlessly litigious society?
Ray Wagner, whose Wagners law firm also wants to represent Flight 624 passengers, insists such lawsuits force public safety improvements.
I doubt that. Change will be spurred, as usual, by the results of the ongoing Transportation Safety Board investigation.
All the rest is about money.
This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.
Photo: Will C/flickr
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