Joseph Cotchett on the Trial Bar Versus Corporate America

The titles of Joseph Cotchett’s two books indicate where he sees the country going.

Joseph Cotchett

The first one was published thirty years ago. 

It’s titled – The Ethics Gap: Greed and the Casino Society (1991).

The second was published five years ago. 

It’s titled – The People vs. Greed: Stealing America: Main Street vs. Wall Street (2016).

For both, he uses the same subtitle – The Continued Erosion of Ethics in Our Professions, Business and Government. 

 The books portray a country mired in corruption, corporate crime and destruction of civic values by corporations. 

Why isn’t the legal system turning this around? All of this law enforcement doesn’t appear to be having much of an impact. Why is that?

“Let’s talk for a minute about Silicon Valley –  Apple, Google, Facebook,” Cotchett told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “A couple of big companies have just gone wild. We lack a federal government in Washington that will take them on. The states are now stepping up to take on Big Tech. And the reason they have to do it is because Washington will not do it. Washington is overrun with K Street lobbyists.” 

“I don’t care if you are talking Democrat or Republican, the Department of Justice over the years has become a revolving door for the big law firms. They take people out of the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the others, and then put them back in.” 

“I happen to be an active Democrat. And I can tell you that our party has done much of the same thing, unfortunately. We have allowed Wall Street and Big Tech to buy us up. We have allowed Big Pharma to buy us up.”

“Why is it that our government hasn’t cracked down on Big Pharma? You can step right over the border into Canada and get any one of these high priced drugs for one third of the price it would cost you in the United States. And the United States doesn’t touch it. Under Medicare, we can’t go after the drug companies.”

“So Washington has let us down. They have been bought out. Money talks. And money has done a lot of talking in electing people.” 

“The Trump Administration was all about the top one percent. They didn’t care about anything other than the profit cycle. And the Democratic Party has some of the same problems. Hopefully we have people coming into our world today saying – enough is enough, we have to do something for others.”

What about the relative balance of power between corporate lawyers and trial lawyers?

“I just finished a case against Apple,” Cotchett said. “If you have an Apple phone, you will recall a couple of years ago your battery going dead. We alleged, you go into an Apple store and say – my battery keeps going dead. And they would say – let us fix it for you. It will take us about thirty days. By the way, may I call you Russ? Russ may I show you an Apple 6, Apple 7 or Apple 8 phone? These are really tremendous and I think you are tremendous. Your battery might not go dead with them.”

How much money did Apple make on that?

“It was in the billions. We settled for $500 million. But I can only do so much. They threw at me probably at any given time eight or ten lawyers opposing the couple of our attorneys.”

“Big corporations go out and hire five lawyers, ten lawyers, or twenty lawyers. And that is all a tax deductible expense. I do the same battle against these big tech firms. Whatever money I’m throwing into that case, I paid income tax on. Corporations today can hire all the young lawyers they want.”

“I just lost a fabulous young lawyer to Facebook. That is where the world is going on the legal side.”

Why is it that when you ask regular people on the street about lawyers, they start ripping trial lawyers? They don’t mention corporate defense lawyers. Why did the trial lawyer bar lose the battle over reputation?

“That is what it comes down to. I have a bunch of trial lawyer friends that refuse to do a pro bono case. You see them advertising on your television. All they are about is picking up a percentage of whatever they get you. There is nothing wrong with that. But when lawyers go out and get fifty percent from someone who just lost a leg in an accident, that is scandalous and outrageous.” 

“You have trial lawyers walking around in a $2,000 suit and a $2,000 pair of boots and saying – I’m a trial lawyer – and they refuse to stand up to those without a voice. And that is the problem that we have had as trial lawyers.”

“We have formed a number of organizations like the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and the American College of Trial Lawyers. We try to screen those lawyers who are decent human beings that want to give back from those who are out there just to make a buck. Unfortunately, we have not won the battle yet.”

The other major issue that undermines the reputation of trial lawyers is collusive class actions.

“We are seeing that every day,” Cotchett said. “I’m dealing with a couple of situations right now. By collusive, you mean where someone goes out and files a class action, goes to the defendant, settles it, and then wipes out all of the individual legitimate claims for pennies on the dollar?”

Or could it be that the corporations have lists of class action counsel that are ready and willing to sell out the individuals who have been wronged and the corporations actually put in the call?

“Without going into details, that just happened in Los Angeles,” Cotchett said. “One company has been sued now three times in the past ten years and it has been the same lawyer that they worked with. And it got to the point where they never actually even filed an answer. The case was settled before that. You are absolutely right. There is a stealing of assets. Of course that is happening.”

And it’s not just in smaller cases. You wrote about Roundup in your book. 

“I’m very familiar with it. You talk about Roundup. How about all of these cruise line ships that knew they had coronavirus on board the ships and are now subject to individual lawsuits? Along come some people who file a class action to get rid of all of the cases for pennies on the dollar. In fact, they are working with the cruise lines.”

“You could take ten different industries right now where I could cite you examples of this. Take our fire cases here in California. Some individuals have gone out to file class actions to round up all of the fire victims and get rid of their cases.”

This is the kind of issue that the Wall Street Journal uses to whip up sentiment against the trial bar.

“Not just the Wall Street Journal. It involves every little newspaper, every little media outlet in the country being fed by these major news outlets.”

[For the complete Interview with Joseph Cotchett, see page 35 Corporate Crime Reporter 22(12), Monday May 31, 2021, print edition only.]

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