Speaking at the Law School last night on the subject of "ambulance chasers," controversial trial attorney Marvin M. Belli defended large personal injury suits as serving the interests of "the little guy."
Calling today the "golden age of law for the little guy," Belli praised law firms specializing in lucrative liability cases as champions of the public against big corporations.
The flamboyant 78-year-old attorney is known for his role in a variety of sensational legal cases. He represented Jack Ruby in the Lee Harvey Oswald murder trial. More recently, he has represented clients seeking huge damages in the downing of a Korean Air Lines jet, the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel fire, and the Bhopal chemical disaster.
Commenting on the Bhopal case, Belli said he expected to win a $1 billion award from Union Carbide Co. on behalf of 22,000 clients. Thousands of people were killed or injured in the Indian village when deadly gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant earlier this year.
The case is now pending in a U.S. federal court.
Belli spent most of his rambling 40-minute talk denouncing proposed federal legislation that would place a ceiling on awards in personal injury suits. The legislation has gained momentum following a series of large damage awards by juries.
Citing another threat, Belli told an audience of 80 law students at Langdell Hall to "watch out if all warranty cases are mandated by Congress to be arbitrated."
He said that he regretted the disparity between the relatively few successful claims and the many victims who go unrepresented. However, he said that the prospect of large awards creates "a poor man's ticket to court" by allowing lawyers to accept cases on a contingency basis.
Describing one of his more unusual cases, Belli said he will soon be traveling to the Netherlands to claim a client's share of a $15 billion pool of confiscated Iranian assets established to compensate financial victims of the Iranian Revolution.
"Any red-blooded lawyer would see if there was some way to get at that money," Belli said.
That comment prompted one member of the audience to ask, "Aren't you preceding the ambulance rather than even chasing it?"
Belli responded that he was representing a client with a legitimate claim.
Contrary to popular opinion, he said, the "ambulance chaser" is seldom the first person at the scene of the accident--lawyers are often beaten by "the insurance agent who comes out of the gas pipe."
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