Since its opening in 2017, Weitz & Luxenberg’s Detroit, Michigan, office has positioned itself at the center of multiple class action, antitrust, environmental, and consumer protection litigation efforts. Headed by Michigan native and former Michigan Assistant Attorney General Paul Novak, our Detroit team is pursuing justice on many fronts.
Operating from this region of the United States provides W&L with a unique vantage point, and affords us the opportunity to maintain a strong physical presence against some of the most egregious corporate and institutional offenses nationwide.
We recently had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Novak about his team and their perspective on current litigations. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
Q: What practice areas does the Michigan office focus on?
A. Our office handles complex class action and mass tort litigation. Some of our key areas of focus right now are the national opioid crisis, the Flint water litigation involving lead-contaminated water, insulin price gouging, anti-sex trafficking, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Michigan groundwater, and the Wells Fargo auto insurance scam. In the future, I would also like to see us become even more involved with litigation I have handled over the years involving artificially inflated drug prices and similar areas of antitrust concern.
National Opioid Epidemic: W&L currently represents more than 60 Michigan cities and counties, as well as San Francisco, California, and Native American tribes in litigation against multiple pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and retailers whose conduct caused an epidemic of addiction. We believe the defendants have deceptively marketed and recklessly distributed opioids. Their actions have endangered lives as well as led to an unprecedented national crisis.
Flint Water Crisis: Although a tentative settlement has been reached, we are continuing to fight on behalf of families who have been exposed to drinking water contaminated with lead. At the outset of the litigation, a U.S. federal district court appointed us to the Plaintiffs Steering Committee. And in companion state court litigation, we successfully obtained a decision from the Michigan Supreme Court that rejected some of the State’s governmental immunity arguments. We believe reckless actions by government officials to save money led to this public health crisis. The State of Michigan and City of Flint have agreed to pay $620 million to the victims in Flint and we are in the process of finalizing that settlement while also continuing to litigate claims against some of the culpable engineering companies.
Insulin Price Gouging: From roughly 2012 to 2017, retail prices for insulin nearly tripled. This medication is a necessity for many people with diabetes; not taking this drug as needed can be lethal. W&L brought a class action lawsuit against three manufacturers at the forefront of enormous price hikes we believe potentially endangered lives and is actively litigating insulin claims in a class action in New Jersey.
Sex Trafficking: Human trafficking, including that for sex, is the world’s second largest criminal enterprise behind only the global drug trade. While sex trafficking takes many forms, our efforts focus on holding the hotel industry accountable for the profits they gained from the trafficking that occurred in their rooms.
Contaminated Groundwater: Contaminated groundwater continues to be an issue across the region, and we fight on behalf of residents as the need arises. As an example, just a few years ago, we filed a class action lawsuit against Wolverine World Wide, 3M Corporation, and Waste Management, Inc. We contend they dumped toxic waste and polluted groundwater in Kent County. Anyone in that region was potentially exposed to enormous levels of toxins in their drinking water.
Wells Fargo Auto Insurance Scam: We learned that customers who obtained their car loans from Wells Fargo were also being secretly charged for additional car insurance they did not need. W&L filed a class action against the bank and are served on the court-appointed Executive Committee in ongoing litigation. This class action represents thousands of consumers and was successfully resolved for $394 million.
Q: Are there litigations that are run out of the Michigan office, or do you always work in concert with New York?
A: Both. We collaborate with Robin Greenwald, Chair of the firm’s Environmental Practice Group and Ellen Relkin Chair of our Drug and Medical Device Litigation group in New York. Our firm’s anti-human trafficking efforts are also led by Tiffany Ellis in the Detroit office.
As far as the national opioid crisis litigation, our office handles much of the day-to-day litigation efforts, but Ellen Relkin is serving in a leadership position on the national steering committee.
Q: We know you have deep experience with class actions. How does the administration of a class action differ from a mass tort?
A: A class action focuses on one or a handful of clients who are representative of a much larger group of people, sometimes hundreds, even thousands. This group is called a “class.” We gather and compile evidence from this small, select group of people, and if we successfully demonstrate that the injuries they have experienced are similar to injuries suffered by the class as a whole, we proceed to litigate the claims of the entire class. When we reach a settlement or resolution to that litigation, everyone who is part of that class action benefits. The Wells Fargo settlement is one example of a class action suit that was successfully litigated and settled as a single class action case.
Mass tort litigation also involves many people harmed by the same situation or product. However, in mass tort litigation, attorneys work with each and every individual client who has been harmed.
An example of mass tort litigation would be the lawsuits involving Roundup, a widely used and distributed weed killer. In that instance, homeowners, gardeners, farmers, and consumers across the country successfully pursued compensation through individual attorneys.
Q: How beneficial is it that W&L has a strong regional office such as Michigan?
A: Having an office centrally located in the U.S. helps raise W&L’s profile overall. In addition, Detroit continues to be the national hub of the automotive industry. I would like to see W&L emerge as a leader in future litigation on this front as new problems are uncovered.
Q: Is there a specific litigation that you’d like to highlight that draws upon the special talents of you and your staff in Michigan?
A: The opioid crisis is the best example currently. Our Detroit team is responding to ongoing litigation both nationally and regionally. This litigation requires the skills not only of strong litigators, but also our ability to work with governmental institutions and agencies. We’re all in this together, and collaboration is key.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and for a number of governmental agencies, and I believe this added perspective is helpful in interacting with state attorneys general, who are also involved in this litigation. I’ve done this kind of work before within the Michigan Attorney General’s office, so there’s an inherent respect we have for each other, while recognizing we’re approaching the crisis from differing vantage points. In the end, we all want to find resolutions that help our communities and the nation as a whole.
About Paul Novak
Mr. Novak came to W&L with an illustrious career in both public and private legal practice. He has been appointed by multiple state and federal courts as lead counsel for plaintiffs in many class action lawsuits. He has been awarded the Frank J. Kelley Distinguished Trial Advocacy Award for service in the Michigan Attorney General’s office. Mr. Novak’s antitrust efforts have been featured in the National Law Journal. In addition, Mr. Novak is regularly recognized as a being on the Michigan Super Lawyer and Best Lawyer lists in DBusiness Magazine.
Martindale Hubbell has rated Mr. Novak as AV Preeminent®, its highest peer rating standard. The organization assigns this rating to “attorneys who are ranked at the highest level of professional excellence for their legal expertise, communication skills, and ethical standards” by both their peers and the judiciary. In addition, the Global Competition Review’s Who’s Who in International Competition Law has named Mr. Novak one of the top plaintiff antitrust attorneys in the country.