by Arthur Bryant, Chairman of Public Justice
* This post originally appeared on the blog for Public Justice
Corporate America and irresponsible government officials consistently trash lawsuits as “frivolous” and trial lawyers as “greedy.” Why? Because lawsuits and trial lawyers hold them accountable when they abuse their power, break the law, and violate people’s rights.
Want proof? Just look at the five finalists for Public Justice’s 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. This coveted honor goes annually to the lawyers who won the verdict or settlement that made the biggest contribution to the public interest in the past year.
David v. Signal International
In 2005, Signal International, a large contractor in Alabama and Mississippi, was hired to help rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It recruited nearly 500 pipefitters and welders from India with promises of good jobs and permanent U.S. residency. The recruits paid $10,000 to $25,000 just to be considered. But Signal brought them here on guest worker visas, with no possibility of residency; forced them to live in “man camps” on “the reservation,” with up to two dozen workers in a trailer with one bathroom; and deducted $1,050 monthly from their pay to do so. When Signal learned some workers were organizing to take action, they locked those workers in a trailer, terminated the leaders of the organizing movement and attempted to forcibly deport them. One became so distraught he attempted suicide.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a team of public interest and private attorneys fought for seven years – and continues to fight – to hold Signal accountable. When the judge would not let the case proceed as a class action, the SPLC recruited an extraordinary group of lawyers to represent hundreds of workers in a dozen related lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions on a pro bono basis. David v. Signal International was the first to go to trial. Led by Alan Bruce Howard of Crowell & Moring in New York, with other attorneys from that firm, the SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans, and Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker in Uniondale, NY, the lawyers navigated numerous complex challenges, including explaining immigration law to jurors and presenting testimony from workers who did not speak English. They won a unanimous $14 million jury verdict for five workers in a four-week trial. The jury found Signal had engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. This is the largest labor trafficking litigation in U.S. history. The David verdict is just the beginning. The claims of the other workers have yet to be heard.