The King of Torts
by John Grisham
I enjoy going back to Grisham from time to time. You can always rely on him to produce a fast-paced thriller. Likewise – so it seems to me – you can rely on him trashing the American legal system and demonising a large percentage of its lawyers as greedy, corrupt, chauvinistic, immoral wankers. I’m always hoping it’s just fiction!
‘Just make the money. It’s a racket. It has nothing to do with being a lawyer. Find ’em, sign ’em, settle ’em, take the money and run.’
In The King of Torts, the trashing steps up a notch. It exposes the vicious side of class action, something we in the UK don’t know much about – and hope it doesn’t catch on too much over here. In fact, I had to do a little research in order to understand what was going on.
For the benefit of readers like me, whose knowledge of the law is deficient, I will explain. In class action, a lawyer or firm of lawyers will pool together several clients with the same grievance – for example, they have suffered the same injury through the negligence of another party. The firm then files for compensation on their behalf. With a large number of clients, the lawyers’ fees can amount to millions of dollars/pounds.
‘ “No, Clay, that’s mass tort litigation at its finest. That’s how the system works these days …. There is so much money involved that the mass tort lawyers wait like vultures for any hint of a bad drug.” ‘ [Max Pace in The King of Torts]
Now to the story. In The King of Torts, Clay Carter is a young lawyer working in the public defender’s office, taking on clients who are nearly always as guilty as hell, with no room for doubt. After taking the case of Tequila Wilson, a youth who has shot and killed another with no apparent motive, Clay is approached by the mysterious Max Pace. Pace offers Clay the deal of a lifetime – serious money to take on a class action case against a major drug manufacturer. According to Pace’s inside information, Wilson and several already convicted killers have been trialing a drug called Tarvan, which successfully cures addiction but which has (in some cases) the nasty side effect of turning its patients into homicidal maniacs. Clay successfully pursues the case and starts making serious money for his newly-created law firm.
Seduced by the huge amounts of money to be made, Clay takes on another case. Dyloft is a drug which helps arthritis sufferers, but which apparently in certain cases causes benign tumours in the bladder. Once again, Max Pace supplies the evidence, along with some names.
‘ “You’re a bunch of crooks, you know that? I don’t know who’s worse – the company that made the drug or my own lawyers who’re screwing me out of a fair settlement.” ‘ [Mr Ted Worley in The King of Torts]
Now, Clay isn’t really a bad person, though he’s a bit foolish and wrong headed. He makes $100 million and gives away $30 million to three colleagues who have worked with him on the project.
Then there is Maxatil, a female hormone drug that causes breast cancer and strokes. There are other cases. Clay continues making money, and spending it – on a fancy car, a boat for his dad, and an aeroplane. His new girlfriend Ridley enjoys spending it too!! Life for him seems great until things start to go wrong. Clients refuse their settlements; some Dyloft tumours turn out to be malignant; benefits from the Maxatil case, for which Clay has over 20,000 clients, depend on the outcome of a single jury trial against the drug’s makers; Clay becomes focus of an FBI investigation; he is sued.
If you want to know if/how Clay gets out of a serious (even life-threatening) situation, you had better read The King of Torts for yourself. It isn’t the best of Grisham’s novels that I’ve read – I don’t LIKE any of the characters much, nor do I empathise with the world the novel exposes – but it certainly has pace and suspense. And if you like legal thrillers, you probably ought to give it a try.