Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lawyer in BIG Chicken Suit

Edmondson's lawyers face big payout in Big Chicken suit

Drew Edmondson
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the latest chapter of Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson's Big Chicken saga drags on, the private attorneys he hired to fight it must be thinking settlement.

And why not? The lawyers have markers out for a goodly chunk of whatever the 14 chicken-producing companies the AG sued in 2005 for polluting Arkansas headwaters might pay to get out of the lawsuit, thanks to their controversial contingency-fee contract with the AG. That's despite some questionable connections and recent history.

The three firms - Miller & Keffer, LLP; Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis; and Motley Rice - won a legal battle early last year against the defendants to keep their contingency-fee contract with Edmondson. Defendants including agribusiness giants like Tyson, Inc. and Simmons Foods, Inc. charged that the three stood to collect a third of any award and that the contract was unconstitutional.

The firms' motion also charged Edmondson with seeking to enrich his favorite lawyers. They might have forgotten that one of the Big Chicken firms - Tulsa, OK-based Riggs, Abney - could legitimately claim to have had that pleasure already.

The Big Chicken suit - State of Oklahoma v. Tyson Foods et al. (docket# 05-CV-329-GKF-SAJ) - in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma has now dragged into its third year after four fruitless years of negotiations. It centers around chicken waste allegedly spread by the defendants in the Illinois River headwaters, causing pollution in downstream Oklahoma.

The case has sparked a flurry of legal back-and-forths, most significantly with the judge's ruling last June that upheld the firms' contingency-fee agreement with the AG. That decision sparked outrage amongst groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (sponsor of this publication) that oppose such fee arrangements between private attorneys and the state.

In an amicus curiae brief in the Big Chicken case, the National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC) wrote: "The use of contingency fees to compensate litigating counsel turns on its head the traditional dictum that the state achieves its goals whenever justice is done, not when it wins a large award."

One of Edmondson's law firms already knows plenty about large awards. Of the $250 million in attorney fees generated by Edmondson's tobacco settlement a decade ago, Riggs Abney picked up $30 million for its share. In the years since, the firm and its attorneys have donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Edmondson and other prominent Oklahoma and national Democrats.

Motley Rice is a well-known plaintiffs' attorney but since signing on with Edmondson it has faced several problems, most recently in West Virginia for allegedly directing part of a contingency-fee settlement to an out-of-state beneficiary. Meanwhile, Miller & Keffer's Bill Keffer, a Texas state legislator, sponsored a bill there placing more restrictions on property-owners trying to sue companies for environmental damage.

Now Edmondson and the lawyers have moved to place a moratorium on further chicken-waste spreading in the Illinois River area, halting all such activity. Small farmers in the area are concerned and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau last month got permission to file a brief in the case on their behalf.

A legal resolution looks further away than ever. A settlement, though, may be ever closer.

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