Heather Isringhausen Gvillo Sep. 9, 2014, 10:22am

ST. LOUIS (Legal Newsline) – The Napoli, Bern, Ripka, Shkolnik law firm held a meeting with asbestos attorneys on Friday to discuss future litigation plans and former mistakes, particularly with the firm’s initial approach to filing asbestos lung cancer cases in Madison County, Ill.

“We are committed to bringing the practice to a manageable and a realistic level,” said Marc Bern, senior partner with the firm.

Bern was joined by Ethan Horn, asbestos attorney with the Napoli firm; Patrick Haines, head of the Madison County asbestos office; and Brad Smith, head of the bankruptcy trust team of the Napoli firm.

The meeting’s primary purpose was to express the firm’s intentions to change the reputation it developed after filing a mass number of asbestos lung cancer cases after only two years litigating in Madison County - the nation's epicenter of asbestos litigation.

“We continue to hear the almost-panic in some people’s voices over the lung cancer docket,” Haines said.

The New York-based Napoli firm opened an office in Madison County in 2012. Just one year later, the firm dominated the docket, representing roughly 32 percent of the new case filings. Of those 525 cases, more than 90 percent of those cases were lung cancer claims.

Haines agreed his firm files a larger number of lung cancer cases than other asbestos plaintiffs firms, explaining that the firm obtained an influx of lung cancer cases all at once a few years ago, which resulted in a mass lung cancer filing last year.

Since then, the Napoli firm has been steadily rejecting and selecting which claims it will represent. Haines said that the initial wave of work is complete, allowing for a drop in filing rates.

“We chewed through that work that was all there in one chunk,” he said.

The firm admitted that it erred in its initial filing practices.

“I admit, Bern said, “in the past couple of years, there have been some mistakes that have been made. But we’ve also done a lot of things right.”

Bern explained that because the firm received so many cases so quickly, it had to file them before it had a chance to thoroughly complete evaluation and review.

However, those cases are now being reviewed properly, but could take some time, he said.

“I can’t tell you that tomorrow all these cases will be resolved on our part,” Bern said. “It’s going to take a while. There were a lot of cases that were filed relatively quickly.”

In fact, the firm used its recent decrease in case filings as an example that it intends to improve the way it is perceived.

As of June 30, Madison County has seen 656 new cases filed in its asbestos docket, a drop from last year’s record of 793 mid-year filings.

Of the new filings, the Napoli firm has filed about 19 percent of the total filings, or about 124 new cases – a drop from previous years.

Bern said he hopes people can recognize that the firm is committed to improvement by the decrease of the filings.

Haines added that the firm only filed 40 or 50 cases in January and every month since then has gone down.

“That’s not because we are giving up on the firm or we have surrendered our position,” Haines said. “It’s because we filed what we had.”

He promised that the filing numbers from 2012 and 2013 will not come from the Napoli firm again, saying the “floodgates” that “appeared” to be open are now closing.

Bern added that the firm plans to handle the cases the same way many other asbestos firms handled these cases in the past, by filing more consistent, lower numbers after thorough review.

As for the cases that have already been filed, the firm made it clear that it does not want to be involved in unnecessary lengthy and costly litigation – meaning the attorneys want to resolve disputes over who should be in the case or where the case should be tried now rather than by filing motions back and forth.

“Ultimately, whatever parties that should be in the case, will be in the case,” Bern said. “Those who shouldn’t be in the case, won’t be in the case.”

“If we don’t need you in the case,” Horn confirmed, “we don’t necessarily want you in the case.”

Defendants that don’t have merit in the cases will be voluntarily dismissed, Bern and Haines confirmed.

“Many of these cases will have a large number of defendants that will get dismissed,” Haines said. “I would rather do that now than later.”

“[W]e all have way more work than we can handle, and we don’t need a way breaking out where we just fling motions one after another,” he added.

The two encouraged defense attorneys to come to them personally to take a look at the cases and make progress rather than address their concerns in the courtroom.

“I want to again confirm our pledge that that’s the direction we’re heading,” Horn said about the resolving cases earlier if possible.

However, the firm is also prepared to address disputes in court when the parties do not agree, noting that it still believes some defendants are properly included in certain asbestos lawsuits.

Haines added that there are several lung cancer cases set for trial in February and March, but he said there is a better way of resolving these cases than trying them to verdict.

“We’re not here to get a bunch of verdicts or drive anybody into bankruptcy,” Haines said. “That’s not our plan.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Heather Isringhausen Gvillo at asbestos@legalnewsline.com

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