Some of the most important tools a lawyer has to help injured people are class and mass actions. Such lawsuits allow individuals – all of whom have suffered some harm – to join together to take on powerful institutions they could not afford to battle alone.
Girardi Keese has made an art form of the technique, using class and mass actions to help individuals whose homes were not built to code or built on toxic waste dumps; who were prescribed medication that ended up harming them; or who were charged unfair fees by insurers.
"It's critical that consumers be allowed to band together to take on rich, powerful corporations," says Graham LippSmith, who heads the firm's class action division.
He and Tom Girardi are in the final stages of a case that's been recognized as the 'settlement of the year', representing 13 million policyholders of Farmers Insurance who had been assessed unfair management fees for their policies. The firm scored a $549 million settlement for the policyholders.
"While each of these policyholders may only have been charged small amounts, when put together you can see that Farmer's took millions from its customers unfairly," LippSmith explains.
Keith Griffin and Girardi used a mass action to successfully settle claims against GlaxoSmithKline, whose Avandia diabetes drug caused up to 200,000 heart attacks in the U.S. The firm represented 4,200 patients who took the medication to regulate their blood sugar.
"Whether we are taking on Vioxx, Fosamax, Avandia, Yaz, Actos, Zometa, it is exceedingly important to our ability to help people that we be able to form a united front of those who have been injured," explains Jack Girardi, who is handling the firm's work on Zometa and Fosomax. Merck marketed Fosamax as a drug to combat osteoporosis. However, according to more than 2,300 lawsuits over the drug, it can cause 'dead jaw', in which the jaw bone deteriorates requiring replacement, as well as congestive heart failure.
Class and mass actions aren't just for taking on the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, either. LippSmith is currently representing 10,000 homeowners in Hawaii in construction defect class actions over shoddy building that left the homeowners vulnerable to high winds.
"These homeowners are in a terrible situation," says LippSmith, who studied for and passed the Hawaii bar to facilitate the claims. "These are wonderful people, former military members as well as young families who have been sold homes that will not withstand the high winds that can hit Hawaii."
The flaw in the home construction is the connectors that join the foundation to the first floor, the first floor to the second and the second to the roof. "The connectors have to have sufficient strength to deal with what's called uplift and lateral shift," LippSmith says.
To save money, the builders used connectors—hurricane straps—that withstand wind speeds way below the requirements to be safe.
"We're seeing some homes where the straps have cracked all the way through, so there's nothing holding the frame to the foundation," LippSmith says. The developer could have used anchor bolts, he explains, which are far safer and more secure, however that would have cost more money.
"That's how developing is done," he explains. "If you can save a little money on one house and multiply that over dozens of developments and thousands of homes, you save a lot of money on the cost of building houses."
"It's always about the bottom line" in class actions, LippSmith says. "If you can find where the mistakes were made, that's the key to doing well for the people we represent."
Another important element of class and mass actions is the ability to repair harm – or get companies to change the way they do business – in addition to paying monetary compensation. The firm's work on pharmaceutical cases has facilitated dangerous drugs being withdrawn from the market, while its work on toxic housing developments has required developers to clean up the soil.
In Hawaii, "we're not just trying to get people money in their pockets," says LippSmith. "We want these homes fixed. It doesn't do any good to give someone $50,000 and tell them to go have their home fixed when what the community needs is to be made safe for the residents, many of whom are military who've served our country overseas in combat.
"You really feel you're helping people by protecting them and helping restore value to their homes," he says.