John Grisham and class actions
I’ve been away and out of contact with the internet again, but at least it has given me enough time to read some books and to do some thinking about my next novel. I’ve written the first 22,000 words so a long way to go on that. As far as the reading, I found a copy of The King of Torts by John Grisham and read it in a couple of days. It’s an awful title but seems to derive from the way class actions are brought in the USA. The protagonist is Clay Carter, a youngish lawyer working for the Office of Public Defender in Wasington DC. He is assigned the case of Tequila Watson who, inexplicably, has become a killer and murdered an acquaintance known as Pumpkin. Carter begins to explore Watson’s backgound and is puzzled by the lack of motive and the absence of any history of violence. Watson is a drug addict who has been in a rehabilitation program and when Carter makes enquiries at the project he is not convinced he is being told the whole truth.
Overworked and underpaid, Carter is ripe pickings for Max Pace who tells him a major Drug Company is willing to pay compensation to Pumpkin’s family and his legal fees if he is acting on their behalf. The secret he must keep is that Watson along with others were treated as guinea pigs with a drug that ‘cures’ addiction but has a side effect in about 8% of the addicts that makes them a killer. Carter quits his job with the Office of Public Defender and earns himself about $15 million. He justifies his actions to himself by arguing that Watson has no defence to the charge of murder. I don’t know if that would be the case in the US but I think under English Law he would have a defence to murder of not to manslaughter. If the drug that turned him into a killer was given to him by the staff at the rehabilitation project as part of his care program then he would be able to claim his mental state was not self-induced and therefore he was not responsible. I had a similar case when Diego Cogolato killed the dress designer Ossie Clark, under the influence of a combination of illegal drugs and prescribed drugs that made him believe Clark was the devil and he heard voices telling him to kill.
Carter is then told about another drug that is widely prescribe and has the side effect of causing growths in the bladder. He files a claim against the Pharmaceutical Company and advertises for other users to contact his law firm so that a large number of complainants are joined in the same action against the company, a class action. These actions enable lawyers involved in the proceedings to earn large sums of money. The novel describes the way these proceedings take place and the dangers in them. I won’t say anymore because it will spoil the story. In the UK these type of actions are rare although the courts can give consent for what is called a Group Litigation Order but the proceedings are controlled by the Judge. Also cost capping orders are made which limit the amount lawyers can earn. There are no juries in civil cases of this type in England so exemplary damages are rarely given. Although there are proposals to have this kind of collective action in certain cases at the moment any move towards that is very slow.
This book perhaps under scores why American writers of legal thrillers have so much more to write about as the US system provides more drama than the UK one. I was certainly told that it was very difficult to sell a legal thriller/mystery to the publishing industry and that only John Grisham can write them. Are there any writers using the English Criminal Justice System as Grisham uses the US one?