I thought of one of my early posts — Why Sue? It’s Political –– as I read Wil S. Hylton’s New Yorker article, “A Bug In The System” (February 2, 2015).
Hylton’s story concerns food-borne bacteria that, thanks to an over-complex yet weak food inspection and regulatory system in the United States, have poisoned and killed a startling number of people. It’s a pretty shocking story: he names food producers who continue to produce meats containing dangerous bacteria–because our regulations are so weak, they are permitted to.
And naturally he brings into his story a lawyer, Bill Marler, who has represented many clients in lawsuits against various food companies (one of them, Whole Foods). Here are excerpts from the story:
During the past twenty years, [Bill] Marler has become the most prominent and powerful food-safety attorney in the country.
His law firm, on the twenty-eighth floor of a Seattle office building, has filed hundreds of lawsuits against many of the largest food producers in the world. By his estimate, he has won more than six hundred million dollars in verdict and settlements, of which his firm keeps about twenty percent.
Given the struggles of his clients–victims of organ failure, sepsis, and paralysis–Marler says it can be tempting to dismiss him as a “bloodsucking ambulance chaser who exploits other people’s personal tragedies.” But many people who work in food safety believe that Marler is one of the few functioning pieces in a broken system.
Robert Brackett, who directed food safety at the F.D.A. during the George W. Bush Administration, told me that Marler has almost single-handedly transformed the role that lawsuits play in food policy. “Where people typically thought of food safety as this three-legged stool–the consumer groups, the government, and the industry–Bill sort of came in as a fourth leg and actually was able to effect changes in a way that none of the others really had.” [Elizabeth] Hagen [a former head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service] said the cost that Marler extracts from food makers “can be a stronger incentive or disincentive than the passing of any particular regulation.” Mike Taylor [the highest-ranking food-safety inspector at the Food & Drug Administration] called litigation such as Marler’s “a central element of accountability.”
“Fifteen years ago, almost all the cases I had were E.coli linked to hamburger, and now I have maybe two or three,” [Marler] told me over the phone in mid-January. He was sitting in his office overlooking the Seattle harbor. “It shows how much progress we’ve made. You might hate lawyers, you might not want us to make money, but look what the beef industry did.” Marler said he had recently eaten a hamburger for the first time in twenty years. “Ground beef has learned its lesson–but chicken is still, in many respects, unregulated. So we have to keep fighting.”