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Why Manufacturers Should Pay Attention to the Pawa/Hagens Berman Union

Over the past few weeks, the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project has exposed the activists and plaintiff’s lawyers targeting manufacturers with far-fetched legal theories in hopes of achieving notoriety or scoring big paydays in the form of legal settlements or court-awarded damages.

The strategy behind these suits was largely designed by Boston-based attorney Matt Pawa. For years, Pawa has teamed up with activists and aligned himself with wealthy environmental donors to pursue meritless litigation against energy manufacturers.

Pawa’s suits have attempted to place blame for climate change on particular sectors in the manufacturing economy, primarily energy manufacturers. For the most part, he has been unsuccessful in winning these cases. In fact, he has a distinct track record of having cases thrown out before they could even be litigated, with one notable exception related to the energy sector. In 2013, Pawa got attention for winning a multi-million dollar settlement in New Hampshire against a major energy manufacturer.

Success in that one case made the Pawa Law Group a prime target for its acquisition in 2017 by class action law firm, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro (Hagens Berman).

Who is Hagens Berman?

Hagens Berman is notorious for targeting big corporations with lawsuits to score big pay days and has been involved in high-profile legal fights against pharmaceutical and technology manufacturers.

While they claim to work for the “greater good,” the firm has had a history of being overzealous in their legal pursuits. In 2006, they were forced to pay $10.8 million to former clients, three water bottling companies, after the firm failed to act in their best interests. Instead of accepting a sizable settlement, the firm pushed for a larger class-action case, despite protests by their own clients.  A class action case, of course, carries the potential for substantially higher legal fees for the plaintiffs and a bigger final payout for the plaintiffs’ attorneys. In the end, each of the five class-action cases filed was dismissed, leaving their clients with nothing more than an invoice.

In 2015, the firm was forced to pay fees for “bad faith advocacy.” A U.S. District Judge determined that the firm pursued multiple cases despite the fact that they knew they were “baseless.” Hagens Berman responded with a 67-page brief that, according to Judge Paul Diamond, did “little more than confuse and exhaust the reader.” Judge Diamond also referred to one of Hagens Berman’s allegations as “giv[ing] a new meaning to ‘frivolous.’” 

Doubling Down on Environmental Litigation

The new union with Pawa Law Group makes clear that Hagens Berman sees vast potential (and dollar signs) in going after the energy manufacturing sector. As a part of a large law firm with vast resources, Pawa will be better equipped to bring suits against big companies regardless of their legal merits. Because litigation is expensive and time consuming and can cause reputational harm, companies often feel like they no choice but to settle, even if the claims are baseless.

Hagens Berman and Pawa have already launched climate cases in San Francisco and Oakland that allege energy manufacturers create a “public nuisance” with greenhouse gas emissions and are therefore liable for damages.

Pawa will co-chair the Environmental Litigation Legal Team with Steve Berman, a managing partner and co-founder of Hagens Berman. Berman said that acquiring the Pawa Law Group will allow Hagens Berman to “be even better positioned” to operate in the environmental law space.

Berman himself is no stranger to controversy. After securing a major settlement as a participant in the tobacco litigation of the late 1990s, Berman was alleged to have sent large payments to lawyers who did not even work on the case, promising a Chicago alderman and another lawyer a contingency fee if they won.

If their past work is any indication of their plans for the future, it’s clear that Pawa and Berman will continue to try to legislate through the courts rather than through the appropriate branches of government, while working to extract as many fees as they can from manufacturers along the way.