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Huntington Herald-Dispatch - "Ky. lawyers, judges discuss how to prevent wrongdoing among attorneys"

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Location: Lexington, KY

Huntington Herald-Dispatch - "Ky. lawyers, judges discuss how to prevent wrongdoing among attorneys"

A group of lawyers and judges is reviewing how Kentucky courts handle class action lawsuits and mass torts to see if there's more that can be done to prevent wrongdoing by attorneys.

The meetings come on the heels of criminal charges against three former Lexington-area lawyers, who face federal wire fraud charges related to their handling of a $200 million settlement involving the diet drug fen-phen.

Kentucky's mass tort and class-action litigation committee has been looking at an assortment of issues including better case management and strengthening ethics rules for lawyers. The cases can involve hundreds of clients and millions of dollars.

The committee, which includes lawyers and current and retired judges, will also look at whether the state should change its rules to mirror federal court rules, which are more specific and include a mechanism for moving similar lawsuits into one court or under one judge.

The group hopes to have some recommendations to forward to the state Supreme Court for consideration in the next 12 months, said Supreme Court Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, co-chair of the committee.

"This committee will look at whether the nature of mass tort and class action lends itself more easily to abuse and, if so, what can be done to prevent it."

Susan Pope, a Lexington lawyer who frequently defends corporations, said there have been concerns for some time that Kentucky's ethics rules might need to be tweaked.
"Some of these ethics rules were written at the time when Lincoln was president," said Pope, a member of the committee.

"I think the crux of the problem is that historically the attorney-client relationship has been one attorney and one client, such as your typical medical malpractice case," Abramson said. "There are a whole lot more issues raised when attorneys are representing hundreds of clients."

The committee is also looking at what other states have done to improve ethics and case management.

Some states have developed separate "business courts."

West Virginia has had a panel of six judges that are referred class actions or mass torts through the state Supreme Court, said Judge Alan D. Moats, chairman of West Virginia's Mass Litigation Panel. This year, the panel will propose rule changes to the state Supreme Court to further streamline the process while protecting the rights of individual plaintiffs, Moats said.

"We're looking at ways to make the process more transparent so the public and (lawyers) are familiar with how the process works," Moats said.

Florida is also looking at its procedures for mass torts and developing a statewide computer filing system so lawyers and the public can access the files, said Gregory Youchock of the Florida administrative office of the courts, who serves on the Florida mass tort committee.

Moats and Youchock say questions about attorney conduct in mass torts or class actions have not been an issue in either state but there have been discussions on how to improve communications between lawyers and their clients in these types of cases.

Kentucky's rules could take center stage in a May criminal trial in Covington federal court over the fen-phen settlement.

Cunningham, Mills and Gallion have pleaded not guilty to federal wire-fraud charges. They are accused of taking $65 million more than what their individual contracts with 440 clients said they should receive. The three are expected to argue that the state's procedures involving class action and mass tort lawsuits are vague and that they relied on a now-disgraced state court judge to set their fees.

The Kentucky Bar Association has already suspended the lawyers. A judge in a civil lawsuit regarding the same fen-phen settlement has said the lawyers have to repay at least $42 million to their former clients.

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