WV attorney impressed with MDL conference lineup in New Orleans

Alejandro de los Rios Dec. 9, 2010, 12:33am


Mass tort attorney Harry Bell said that he was impressed with the quality of a program the Louisiana State Bar put together for its 10th Annual Class Action/Mass Tort Symposium set for Friday at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.

Bell, who runs The Bell Law Firm in Charleston, W.Va., is slated to be a speaker on the Multi-District Litigation (MDL) Exit Strategies panel at the conference which runs all day Friday and features judges and lawyers from across the country speaking on the subject of mass litigation.

Other notable speakers include U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana; Michael Rozen, who is working with Ken Feinberg on distributing BP's $20 billion oil spill fund; and Duke Law School professor Francis McGovern, who is the special master of the BP MDL.

Speakers are coming from as far as Cleveland and Minneapolis to speak at the conference, something Bell said usually isn't the case with state bar symposiums.

"Often you see state bars and they don't have a wide variety of speakers," he said. "You look at what the Louisiana Bar has done and I'm very impressed with the depth and breadth of speakers."

The conference is taking place just a few blocks from where the BP MDL hearings are taking place and at a time when mass tort litigation is in a state of flux. Bell, who has practiced law in West Virginia for 30 years, said he hasn't had a chance to follow the BP hearings closely, but recognizes the effects of the $20 billion fund.

"BP is a very, very unique situation where you have a defendant that has put up $20 billion, so you have a massive pool of money and massive type claims from different people with different interests and you don't know what they're going to get," he said.

Bell cited an article in the Wall Street Journal covering a settlement offered to the families of deceased coal miners who died in an explosion in April. In that case, Massey offered a blanket $3 million settlement to all the families.

"Massey didn't say they'd be offering a fund and you have to make a claim and you see what you get later," Bell said. "They offered a flat number."

For MDL purposes, Bell said that everyone involved, especially corporations, like predictability when it comes to litigation. Bell said that predictability is fragile because trial lawyers and corporations play tug of war when it comes to legislation affecting mass tort and MDLs.

"You don't want laws to swing too much pro business because they will eventually swing back pro plaintiff," he said.

Bell said that while he understands the need for business to be able to efficiently make their way through the courts so they can go about their usual day-to-day operations, there's also the threat of the "vanishing jury trial" and its effect on the interpretations of the law.

"The more cases that are tried and the more cases that work through the appellate courts, it will give us more clarity with the law because the law constantly evolves," he said. "The world advances. How else would we have figured out the issues with iPads and online video streaming?"

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