Asbestos, tobacco, guns, lead paint. What’s the next jackpot for tort lawyers? It could be sex.
The focal point of this tort battle is the Catholic Church. The Church’s legal problems are worse even than most people realize: $1 billion in damages already paid out for the victims of pedophile priests, indications that the total will approach $5 billion before the crisis is over. But this wave of litigation does not end here. Is there any reason to think that the priesthood has a monopoly on child molestation?
The lawyers who are winning settlements from Catholic dioceses are already casting about for the next targets: schools, government agencies, day care centers, police departments, Indian reservations, Hollywood.
Plaintiff lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. and other litigators have parlayed the priest crisis into a billion-dollar money machine, fueled by lethal legal tactics, shrewd use of the media and public outrage so fierce that almost any claim, no matter how bizarre or dated, offers a shot at a windfall.
Lawyers are lobbying states to lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, letting them dredge up complaints that date back decades. Last year California, responding to the outcry over the rash of priest cases, suspended its statute of limitations on child sex abuse crimes for one year, opening the way for a deluge of new claims.
“There is an absolute explosion of sexual abuse litigation, and there will continue to be. This is going to be a huge business,” MacLeish, age 50, says. A Boston-based partner of the Miami law firm of Greenberg Traurig (2002 billings: $465 million), he has won upwards of $30 million in settlements for more than a hundred plaintiffs in lawsuits in the past decade. With a hit man’s style and a gift for TV sound bites, he has played a key role in unearthing (and exploiting) the priest scandals of the past two years, prompting a nationwide cascade of similar reports.
Overdue justice. But it could lead to a legal morass marked by extortion as much as fairness, in which a small cast of liars cashes in on the real suffering of victims. “Just think how this ripples out: day care, babysitters, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, summer camps, study-abroad programs. You start thinking about it, and it boggles the mind,” says Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the law school