Law360 calls our Perry Weitz a titan of the legal profession in a fascinating profile piece that appeared in its Nov. 10 online edition. The article by Law360 reporter Juan Carlos Rodriguez traces how the co-founding member of Weitz & Luxenberg helped build the New York personal injury and mass tort law firm into a powerhouse nationally known for its high-dollar verdicts and settlements. Special note is given to Mr. Weitz’s ingenuity, tenacity and fearlessness as a plaintiffs’ advocate. Read the full story:
Titan Of The Plaintiffs Bar: Perry Weitz
By Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Law360, New York (November 10, 2014, 6:06 PM ET)
Perry Weitz first saw the law as a springboard for a political career, figuring that was the best way to help “the little guy.” But along the way, he realized he could better effect change through plaintiffs advocacy, a decision that’s hard to second-guess in light of the billions of dollars his firm has won for clients in asbestos, drug and medical device and environmental injury cases.
The native of the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., received his law degree from Hofstra University in 1985, after majoring in political science at The George Washington University. Soon after graduation, he found himself in a make-or-break situation with a large number of asbestos cases at the personal injury firm where he worked.
“A buddy of mine from law school came to me, and his father was a lawyer for the AFL-CIO. They were looking to get a law firm that would handle asbestos cases for the construction trade in New York,” Weitz said.
At the time, New York law mandated that people claiming asbestos injuries had to sue within three years of their last date of exposure, according to Weitz. But because of the long latency period associated with asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, people sometimes take 20 or 30 years to show symptoms. Many of the proposed clients were people who were exposed to asbestos either working in shipyards during World War II or in construction when they were younger, according to Weitz.
The union was striking out with all of the biggest personal injury firms, which were used to handling one-on-one car accident, trip-and-fall and labor law cases and didn’t want to take on the Fortune 500 companies that would be the target of litigation, Weitz said.
Where others were running away from the fire, Weitz ran straight toward it.
“I was a very young lawyer, and very ambitious, and so I got on a plane and went to a couple of other states where they had a more equitable statute, and they’d been doing some asbestos litigation. So I flew to Texas, I flew to Ohio, I flew to North Carolina,” he said.
After spending time researching case histories, reading transcripts and talking things over with the attorneys in the other states, Weitz decided he wanted to tackle the problem back in New York. He told his firm he wanted to handle the cases on his own — an offer that aroused skepticism, considering his age and experience, he said. He asked them for help in the form of a partnership, a deal they accepted.
After a change in New York law in 1987, the clock on asbestos claims started running not on the last exposure, but on the discovery of an injury. The shift helped Weitz secure jury verdicts of $110 million, $75 million and $15 million for his clients.
Those awards helped get Weitz, his partner Arthur Luxenberg and their firm Weitz & Luxenberg PC off the ground. Since then, the firm, which now boasts 100 lawyers among a staff of about 500, has been at the forefront of mass tort litigation. Earlier this month, Weitz & Luxenberg was involved in a global settlement involving Stryker Corp. hip implants, which will give qualified claimants $300,000 each and could total $1 billion. And last year, the firm served as co-lead counsel in hip implant lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson that ended with a $2.5 billion settlement.
Kenneth R. Feinberg of Feinberg Rozen LLP, best known for acting as the special master of the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, credits Weitz with recognizing that mass torts were a wave he could ride into the future. Feinberg served as special master overseeing asbestos claims in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“He realized 30 years ago that mass tort litigation was here to stay. He also realized that it would take a formidable team of real expert lawyers to be able to litigate in that arena, where there are so many high-visibility cases and where there are very, very competent, highly skilled defense lawyers,” Feinberg said.
Weitz’s vision wasn’t limited to filing lawsuits on behalf of large numbers of clients. He realized early on that litigation was not often a cost-effective way of getting compensation to eligible clients, and was in the vanguard of promoting mass tort alternative dispute resolutions through special masters, mediation, summary jury trials and bellwether trials, according to Feinberg.
“He’s tried everything to accelerate the efficiency of a very inefficient system,” Feinberg said.
Bringing a case is never enough to bring about a just settlement for injured parties, Weitz said, adding that his firm is more than a match for any defense a company throws up. Those pioneering asbestos efforts paved the way for the firms that now handle mass tort claims on a similar scale, according to Weitz.
“It used to be that defense firms would bury us with paper, and they would sort of drive a plaintiffs firm into the ground,” he said. “I think the most important thing that’s changed in the plaintiffs firm world has been the ability of plaintiffs firms to develop the resources and ability to take on corporate America, and not have to settle early. It has evened the playing field of the judicial system.”
Feinberg said that any company facing Weitz & Luxenberg knows, through reputation or experience, that they will not be able to roll over those cases. Weitz has consistently carried through on promises to bring cases to trial because of his personal ability, as well as his firm’s ability to litigate the matter and handle the discovery and motion practice that comes with the mass tort territory, according to Feinberg.
Companies have to respect the sheer number of mass tort clients Weitz brings to a case, Feinberg said. If a company can’t figure out a way to come up with some kind of comprehensive resolution, they will confront a possibly insurmountable trial load, he said.
“If you’ve got a thousand cases on the docket, and Perry’s prepared to try each one, it’s death by a thousand cuts if you can’t find a way to work with him and gain better control over your litigation mass tort docket in New York by working out some sort of settlement arrangement, some strategy for dealing with current cases and future cases,” Feinberg said.
He said the size and volume of Weitz’s inventory has considerable sway over how such litigation will be conducted in New York state and federal courts.
Luxenberg, who has worked with Weitz since before they founded their firm in 1986, said his colleague is one of the best negotiators and closers in the legal profession because of his ability to find solutions in which neither side feels they are being taken advantage of.
“He’s very astute, understands the cases impeccably well, is very well prepared, and finds a way to make his adversary very comfortable so that a resolution can be achieved,” Luxenberg said. “You’re going to like him. You’re not going to be happy about that, if you’re on the other side, but you’re going to have no choice but to like him.”
He said Weitz has always been unafraid to tread new ground, pointing to one of their early cases together, which involved a woman who was knocked down, but not bitten, by a dog. To that point, people attacked by dogs had to show injuries from biting, Luxenberg said, but through that case, he and Weitz were able to show that the dog was vicious and that there were injuries that stemmed from the woman’s fall.
It was a long way from that to the Stryker and Johnson & Johnson settlements, but Weitz said his focus has always been on helping those who can’t help themselves, and will continue to be so.
“I want to try to make things good for everybody. I want to try to equalize things for people in society,” he said.