FAYETTE, Miss. – The lawsuit capital of the U.S. may not be in Washington, D.C., or New York City.
It just might be a rural county of Mississippi with only 8,500 people, where the staple industry seems to be civil litigation.
With a tendency for juries to side with plaintiffs here, lawyers have racked up major money awards against big corporations in Jefferson County: Among the settlements have been $150 million to five people who said they got heart problems from the diet drug Fen-Phen, and $48.5 million to 12 people who said they were exposed to asbestos at work.
"It’s not real money to the jurors," said Scott Welch, of the American Board of Trial Advocates. "People are gambling, hoping to get rich quick … and the system allows the people to do that."
In most towns, the local daily news has advertisements for used lawnmowers and lonely hearts. In Jefferson County, the ads are for attorneys looking for county residents with any problem caused by any product.
What the lawyers are doing is using local plaintiffs to file suit to keep the cases in the Jefferson County courts and out of the less friendly federal courts. Mississippi doesn’t have class-action lawsuits, but because judges have broad discretion to consolidate cases, other plaintiffs from outside Jefferson County can become part of a local lawsuit.
That means it’s not unusual for a single case to have 2,000 or 3,000 plaintiffs, Welch said.
But to keep the suit in Jefferson County, the lawsuit has to name at least one local defendant. And as the only pharmacy in the county, Bankston Drug Store, on Main Street in Fayette, has become a primary target. It’s been named in nearly every lawsuit with a claim of defective medication.
And because of a unique state law that allows a trial to begin only 90 days after filing suit, defense attorneys often have to scramble to get the information they need to get ready. It isn’t any easier with thousands of plaintiffs’ histories to deal with.
"It's a formula for disaster, and defense lawyers who have been down there, whose clients have been raked over the coals down there will certainly tell you that," the American Tort Reform Association’s Sherman Joyce said.
And the situation isn’t helping Jefferson County residents, according to county constable Maurice Hudson. "They come in and get all this money and then won't donate back to the community," he said.
Advocates for tort reform say trial lawyers are exploiting and playing with the emotions of a jury pool that is largely poor and uneducated.
Trial lawyers say that’s racist.
"They don't want justice, they don't want a fair jury," said Shane Langston of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association. "They want to be able to continue cheating poor people, cheating minorities, hurting poor people, hurting minorities without having accountability."
Either way, there is one thing that Maurice Hudson can tell you: Business at the courthouse is brisk.