The toughest peacemaker challenges and the greatest rewards I’ve experienced have come in creating and administering Community Mass Tort Settlements: a PCB plant, a couple of zinc smelters, a medical monitoring plan resulting from coal slurry contamination of a water supply, two train wrecks and a factory fire. The most daunting challenges occur when the case is settled for a sum certain without a settlement structure, and the Administrator is left with the task of figuring out what to do with it.
You are the peacemaker for 5 to 30 years. The key to being a good Administrator in this context is empathy and grit.
Kenny Feinberg got it right: in mass tort settlement administration, consistency is fairness. But the deal must be created, sold and carried out as a part of the community infrastructure. The Administrator, like the cheese in the farmer in the dell, often stands alone. The lawyers are down the road and you are the claimants’ only settlement reference, for good or bad. In a real sense, they are pro se and you are like a Judge with a Courtroom full of them. You’ve got to befriend them; there’s no other path.
Ideally, the claimants design the deal. If you aren’t accepted, you fail. Example: there was a 25% opt out rate in the Blackwell, Oklahoma smelter settlement until we opened a claims office and joined the town, winning back half the exiles. Early, on the ground town meetings to listen to the claimants’ concerns are a good beginning. Counter intuitively, creating a claimants committee with the loudest critics works well. They usually welcome the leadership role and often become your biggest fans. Then spend time in the town, just as a good fisherman spends lots of time on the water. A local office staffed with locals is a must. Social events, where everyone is treated as an equal, work well. I’m Santa in three deals right now.
Over time, you bond with the community and the committee. You then continue to meet with them and thus have a sounding board to assist you in resolving the tough “tweener” issues and to counter negative gossip with positive answers. You can thereby build consensus in settlement design and implementation.
In my Anniston PCB settlement, I had 6 written death threats, but made some of my best friends. We had two or three annual fishing parties at my house, meet quarterly and have parties.
You can’t fake empathy. In the Anniston case, Judge U.W. Clemon hired me at Thanksgiving and asked me to be MonsantoClaus: all 18,000 claimants to have a check in December. Impossible was no answer. Our firm didn’t have a Christmas that year, but the claimants did. When there was griping, I took my folks to the Anniston bank to see our impoverished claimants wrapped around the block cashing their advance checks. “This is Christmas, now let’s go finish our work.”
I define grit as Johnny Football and the Black Knight in Monty Python: fully improvise within the rules and you can lose a few limbs in the process, no sweat. The grit comes in when you are faced with a settlement crisis or squeaky wheel claimant, and have to creatively problem solve without violating the above Feinberg principle. An example of resolution is having a town meeting to decide whether to use a $2 Million settlement surplus to pay everyone $100 or extend the life of the settlement medical clinic a year to help those most in need, and then convincing the group to do the right thing without bloodshed, emergency advance payments, paying the elderly first, or calming an uproar by arranging a Defendant appearance at a town meeting to give a de facto apology for the past while not calling it that.
By the way:
Major problems in long term deal administration are lack of claimant interest over time and plaintiffs’ counsel moving on while the defendant stays and advocates. On the ground claimant outreach to explain the benefits of the settlement such as we’ve undertaken in the two 30 year medical monitoring plans I administer in West Virginia is the key to keeping a deal alive, . The ideal settlement plaintiffs’ lawyer must adopt the claimants and actively participate on the ground, to keep administration of the settlement balanced.