To repeat part of the lead from Part 1, rarely am I presented with a topic that neatly ties in so many concepts previously presented on Slabbed, such as cognative bias. For purposes of this post cognative bias involving the media as we again visit with Matt Labash at the hard line GOP media resource The Weekly Standard. We profiled Matt’s 1998 profile of the Castano Group of trial lawyers that took down big tobacco before training their sites on the nation’s gun manufacturers in part 1, where I labeled Matt’s story a “hit piece” and it is true it was one and beyond my own opinion I’ll add I’m merely repeating Matt’s 2006 description of his first profile of Wendell Gauthier, Danny Abel et al thus the post title. In the interim and despite the earlier “hit piece” Matt ended up befriending Abel and using his NOLA area contacts to write a second story on the big easy for the Weekly Standard, this time post Katrina plus 6 months that I thought was simply excellent. Before we highlight some of that story’s high points we need to fill in a bit of the gap between the death of Gauthier and Hurricane Katrina for Trout Point Lodge/La Ferme D’Acadie owner Danny Abel and his boy toy sidekick Shane (D’Antoni) Gates and for that we need to highlight one of Abel’s true life literary adventures in OUTGUNNED: The First Complete Insider Account of the Battle Over Gun Control. Luckily for all of us Abel’s co-author Peter Brown has been kind enough to share his thoughts on the endeavor with the Slabbed Nation but before we delve into the lawsuit Abel and his boy toy Shane Gates recently filed against Mr Brown using the legal services of Aaron Broussard we must first visit with a 3rd party review of the book, which Brown claims was a complete flop:
Meanwhile, Outgunned, by journalist Peter Harry Brown and trial attorney Daniel G. Abel, is about what’s happening in the here and now. More specifically, the book is a sympathetic look at the efforts of a nationwide consortium of trial lawyers (including Abel) who called themselves the “Castano Group,” and who took on the gun industry in the late 1990s. Why are these lawyers particularly interesting? While it’s true that others had already tried to sue the gun industry (including in a well-publicized New York litigation), the Castano lawyers were different. In the world of the plaintiff’s bar, they were the A-Team. They had resources, connections, and experience–including the experience of winning a $346 billion settlement from the tobacco companies. They were also ambitious. Beginning in 1998, the Castano lawyers launched anti-gun suits in cities across the country–until more than 30 state and local governments were involved in litigation against the gun industry.
The Castano lawyers knew this would be extremely challenging litigation and were proven correct–most of it has floundered or failed. So why did they do it? Not for the cash, insist the authors, who point out that the gun Companies do not have the same deep pockets as Big tobacco and could never offer the same kind of rich settlement that the tobacco litigation yielded. But even if one accepts that the lawyers’ motives were largely pure (maybe they were, maybe they weren’t)–and, indeed, even if one discounts their failures in court–Outgunned is not a book that inspires great confidence in the potential of litigation to solve the nation’s most vexing policy issues.
It also is not a very reflective or analytic book. To be fair, Outgunned bills itself as an “insider account of the battle over gun control.” This is meant to be juicy stuff, not a policy tract. But without much critical argument to distract the reader, the book bogs down in a muck of appalling details about the Castano lawyers who are supposed to be our heroes–facts that the authors unabashedly trot out and never successfully excuse. The key players include well-connected Washington, D.C., lawyer John Coale–who is called “the clown prince of the legal world”–and Cincinnati’s Stanley Chesley, a.k.a. the “sultan of settlement.” But the lion’s share of the limelight is reserved for the book’s co-author Abel and his partner, Wendell Gauthier, with whom Abel bonded at the site of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. Ah yes, those were the days. “While an elephant chased Gauthier through the streets of India,” recall the authors, “Abel crept over terrain with thickets full of cobras to spy on the Union Carbide plant.”
Excuse me, but doesn’t that sound like the voiceover for an old “Rocky & Bullwinkle” segment–all deadpan and credulous? What’s more, the authors manage to sustain this tone for much of the book, making for reading that, despite the subject matter, sometimes verges on the hilarious. In one memorable scene, the Castano lawyers make the mistake of letting a reporter, Matt Labash of the conservative Weekly Standard, tag along for a few days while they work and play. Labash discovers firearms “everywhere” on these ostensibly anti-gun lawyers, including “in Danny Abel’s automobile [and] inside the jacket of [colleague] Michael St. Martin–who pulled out the weapon in a fancy restaurant.” “I think this is really going to hurt our credibility,” intones a sorrowful Gauthier after Labash has left, armed with all the goods for a truly, world-class takedown.
Well gosh, Bullwinkle, that’s right–and the same observation might be made of Outgunned. Indeed, by the time we read about Gauthier’s adventures in riverboat gambling and learn that John Coale’s law license suspended as recently as 1996 for “professional misconduct professional misconduct, in soliciting clients,” the Castano lawyers are all but stripped of credibility. I say this, by the way, as a lawyer who has some appreciation for the useful role that trial attorneys can play in ensuring that manufacturers take responsibility for the goods and services they produce. I certainly don’t reflexively dislike trial lawyers. But Outgunned gives precious little reason to trust the judgment of its protagonists–much less afford them a prominent role steering national policy in an area pretty far from their normal product liability work.
Like I said in Part 1, the Castano group ended up being a poster child for the need for tort reform which involved ordinary citizens losing long-held constitutional rights and indeed it is easy to see how this group of greed driven miscreants could be used to give the entire plaintiff’s bar a bad name. The bottom line here is the big time class action legal magic died with Wendell Gauthier as his group disbanded. Abel and the rest of the girls stuck together after the breakup of course, with Slabbed recently finding Aaron Broussard and Abel at their “office” in the “legal department” of the Super 8 Motel on Clearview Parkway in Metairie.
So it is against that backdrop that we visit again with Matt Labash at the Weekly Standard and his excellent story Will the Good Times Ever Roll Again? A report from post-Katrina New Orleans.
I NEVER PASS THROUGH NEW ORLEANS without seeing two of my favorite people: Danny Abel and Shane Gates. They are large-hearted men, generous and true, and both possess a drinking companion’s most desirable trait: They stay until closing time. I met them nearly a decade ago, when profiling Danny’s then law-partner, the late Wendell “The Goat” Gauthier, a legend of the trial bar who sued anything that moved, and probably many things that didn’t.
In all honesty, it was a hit piece. My subjects were trying to take down the gun manufacturers, much as they did the tobacco industry. Danny (now 59) and his legal assistant/distant cousin Shane (now 30) were my minders. They took me from Quarter bar to restaurant and back again, explaining the evils of smoking and firearms, even as they lit up and showed me their guns–consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds. When the article came out portraying everybody as the swashbuckling pirates they resembled, we remained friends ever after.
In addition to his own small law practice, Danny has owned an exotic cheese farm, is an accomplished chef who used to run a Creole restaurant in the Quarter, and has co-written the Trout Point Lodge Cookbook, based on Creole dishes he and his business partners serve at their lodge in Nova Scotia. The athletically built Shane loves food too, even though he’s lost 20 pounds from stress since his Slidell house was nearly wiped out by Katrina.
Now folks this is tremendous stuff. Matt clearly has great sympathy for the plight of the City as did the nation and his attempt to make up for his earlier, factually correct “hit piece” reveals more about the girls that this blogger could have ever hoped to find in one place and we see evidence of how the girls work as a unit to grift their way through life as Matt continues:
His Cajun grandmother taught him how to cook at the age of 6, knowledge he expanded on when he began working for under-the-table cash at Brennan’s at the age of 13. In the kitchen, he ate so much turtle soup that they limited him to two bowls. So he started ladling it on French bread to make turtle-soup sandwiches instead. Shane never bothered to get his law degree, though he’s Danny’s all-purpose investigator, manager, client-closer, and cornerman. Always a weather-watcher, even more so after Katrina, he would like to become a meteorologist, “because you get paid whether you’re right or wrong.”
Whenever I see Danny, a bibliophile who knows the city’s used-bookstore proprietors by name, he usually brings me some lagniappe, like Socks on a Rooster, one of the great Earl Long histories. But on this night, as we all take a table at Antoine’s (uncharacteristically half-empty), he brings me a CD instead: Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony, about the Nazi siege. “It makes me feel better about New Orleans,” he explains.
Shane and I order Maker’s Mark, while Danny claims he’s practicing pre-trial abstinence. He finally succumbs to peer pressure, though insisting, “I have no peers–how can I be pressured?” He orders a Chartreuse, which makes Shane blanch: “It’s like drinking a Christmas tree.” But Danny revels in Old-Worldliness, pointing out that one of the parade krewes the other day had a sign, saying, “Jacques Chirac, buy us back.”
New Orleans isn’t just another American city, he’s fond of pointing out. The storm, he laments, has physically erased so many points of reference. An attorney friend of his even told him, “I’ve spent 30 years arguing against post-traumatic stress syndrome, now I have it.” So it is important, during these trying times, to remember that New Orleanians are a diaspora people, a people who dress up like Mardi Gras royalty in fruity Shriner-style outfits, a people who “preserve and exaggerate their most essential cultural components: our food, our music, our we-could-care-less-attitude,” a people who aren’t afraid to drink Christmas trees with their crabes mous amandine.
Danny and Shane have brought along an attorney friend of theirs tonight, Carl Finley. In addition to lawyering, Finley is a fireman, a chief deputy constable, and a rappelling instructor. In the current local economy, it helps to be diversified. As befits a man so busy, he talks in machine-gun bursts: “I don’t talk fast, I talk condensed. My court reporters tell me I can do over 300 words a minute.”
Finley is the local affiliate of an outfit from California called the Storm Lawyers, who regularly sue insurance companies on behalf of policyholders who feel they’ve gotten shafted. Danny, too, on a separate track, is working on a suit that he says could make a regular class action look like a round of patty-cake to the insurance companies. The details are still in development. But the important thing to remember, the legal term-of-art that the 300-words-a-minute Finley would like me to focus on, is just one word: BOHICA (Bend over, here it comes again).
This, they all agree, is what is happening to the citizens of New Orleans. Insurance companies, they say, are getting too cute with the wiggle language of policies they should be paying off. During the costliest natural disaster in American history, they are playing stall-ball, trying not to pay if they aren’t absolutely forced to, trying to delay payment if they are, so that they can run up more investment income before writing a check. Finley makes it plain in the Old-World way: “They’re f–ing people, excuse my French.”
If outsiders think this will shake out as just another partisan dog pile, with Democrats predictably siding with the plaintiffs’ attorneys, and Republicans with the insurance industry, guess again. In Katrina states, everyone hates the insurance industry now. Danny says that for the first time in recent memory, plaintiffs’ attorneys, who often rank right down there with meter maids, tax auditors, and journalists on the lowest-forms-of-life scale, “could be heroes–people are calling us up crying.”
Even Trent Lott, who’s been called an insurance industry-stooge in the past, has sued State Farm for not paying up on his destroyed Gulf Coast home. The federal suit is being brought by none other than Lott’s brother-in-law, the super-lawyer/big tobacco-slayer Dickie Scruggs. This development is causing some Louisianans to experience something they’ve never experienced before: Mississippi-envy.
EVERYONE KNOWS, of course, of the misfortune met by the poorest New Orleanians, herded off to football stadiums in other cities. Less well known are the tribulations of the insured middle and upper classes, many of whose daily lives now involve fighting federal and state bureaucracies, as well as the insurance companies. To get just a small taste of it, I went out to Slidell two days later, to witness my friend Shane’s slow torture.
His place was once a beautiful plantation-style house on several acres that are now half-swamp. Slidell, where Lake Pontchartrain drains into the Gulf of Mexico, is where the eye of Katrina passed over, testified to by the forests of downed trees and wreckage and street signs wrapped around telephone polls like bread bag twisties. There was so much debris here, it took Shane an hour and a half to walk up his quarter-mile street when he finally returned home. With hurricane gales coming off Lake Pontchartrain for hours, his house shook like a belly dancer–so hard that it snapped his underground cable. But he was lucky compared with his neighbor. Their house did a complete 180.
The roof in Shane’s attic now has sunlight streaming in, and the downstairs was so covered in mold after receiving about five feet of water that it actually looked like the walls had sprouted rainbow-colored fur. At first blush, many would consider Shane fortunate. He has two insurance policies (with State Farm and Allstate), about $460,000 worth of supposed wind/flood coverage. But his daily existence, his new full-time job, in essence, is fighting the insurance companies for the money to put his life back together.
Doing so is an obstacle course of bureaucratic high-hurdles and Catch-22s. It is way too complicated to describe here in its entirety. But it boils down to this: His house was worth about a half million dollars, but the most he’s shaken out of his insurance companies is around $190,000, administered by his mortgage company in increments, as he reaches certain repair plateaus. He estimates it will cost him nearly $100,000 just to raise his house to whatever the new base-flood elevation requirement is, in order to stay insured, or for a new buyer to get insurance to make his house sellable. What that elevation will be, he says, has yet to be determined, which could make anything he does now futile. Tree removal alone has already cost $8,000 and isn’t nearly done. To dig up a giant pine stump in what used to be his manicured front yard, but which now resembles a mud-wrestling pit, post-Katrina prices will set him back anywhere from $2,000-4,000 dollars per. He has 12 stumps just like it.
With those repairs, his money is nearly gone before he’s touched his house. Plus, he’s supposed to pay himself $10,000 to be his own general contractor in order to find all the contractors who there aren’t nearly enough of (since everybody needs one) to actually fix his home. When he comes back with their prices, the insurance company nixes them as too expensive. Meanwhile, his engineer tells him that the house is totaled–he’s a fool to gut the bottom floor and live on the second story with his wife and newborn (as he’s now doing). It would be cheaper to tear the whole thing down and start over, rather than to repair it. Yet his mortgage company, which is holding the pursestrings, says otherwise, wanting him to patch it up and pay it off.
All the while, Shane is supposed to get rental reimbursement for living outside the house while he fixes it. He rented an apartment in the Garden District, which became too dangerous a place to stay with his baby, once FEMA turned off the hotel-room subsidization spigot in Orleans Parish for lower-income types. Many of them, Shane says, are now crashing with relatives or living hand-to-mouth. They roam the street during the day, until they have to find a place to sleep at night. From his apartment balcony, he’s been screamed at on a half-dozen occasions by envious less-fortunates who demand that he share his electricity and running water.
Recently, when driving to the apartment, he nearly got in a gunfight. A car slammed its brakes on in front of him repeatedly, trying, he suspects, to set him up for an accident. “He pulled out his gun, I pulled out my gun, we got into a chase,” says Shane. “I caught myself and thought ‘What the hell am I doing? I’m going to get in a gunfight because somebody’s trying to make an insurance claim.’ People are losing their minds around here.”
Shane, once a happy-go-lucky type, quick to laugh and slow to anger, often feels as though he’s losing his mind. His wife, Christine, tells me that he now barks at her and everyone else over the slightest provocation, or over none at all. He also drinks too much. Formerly a good-time social drinker, he now drinks during the day, and can only sleep after several glasses of bourbon and a Xanax. “If I don’t drink, I don’t sleep–period,” he admits. When he’s not thinking about the insurance money that he can’t spend, he thinks about the savings that he already has spent (about $60,000 of it, between rentals, unreimbursed repairs, and transportation to and fro, which has seen him put over 30,000 miles on his truck in four months).
Since Katrina, he’s spent over $10,000 to board his beloved five dogs. He’s considered putting slugs in their brains, just to end their anxiety of being checked in and out of kennels when they’re used to living in a spacious barn, and having pastures to run. Because of it, they have skin problems, and have dropped all kinds of weight. The other night, Shane ended up in the emergency room, his throat swelling so severely that he had to spit in a wastebasket instead of swallowing–perhaps because of the stress, perhaps because of the mold and the toxic mud which comes up through holes in his first floor. The air quality is causing a discharge from the baby’s eyes.
Shane misses a lot of simple things: lying on a couch, which he no longer has, getting a glass of water in the middle of the night without putting on a coat, thawing his seafood in the kitchen instead of the bathroom sink, walking barefoot in his place without getting an infection. He wants out of what was once his dream house, since he can’t afford to fix it. It’s strangling him. But a part of him wants to stay.
His favorite Katrina picture is one he saw on the Internet. It’s of an old woman in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, sitting in a rocking chair with water up to her calves. “They tried to rescue her, and she went bananas,” he says. “She said, ‘I’m not leaving’ That’s people’s mentality about home. Think about it–you’re home. It’s where you created your child or got drunk or urinated off the porch. Whatever. It’s your home. You can’t just jump up and replace it, especially since they won’t give you the money to do it anyway. We used to have a good time here, crank the fire-pit up, eat crawfish. Now it’s just gone.”
Now this blog was founded as a consumer driven resource highlighting Katrina cases. Despite the free publicity Carl Finley and the rest of the girls are not who I think as Katrina warriors. They simply took too many shortcuts in their litigation and in the case involving famous local media personality Eric Paulsen took ethical liberties that would make the Oxford based insurance defense bar blush and that folks is saying something. And a fair read of the above tells us something else about how the girls operate because without being compelled to say anything Gates claims Eric Paulsen’s house as his own well before it evidently became more convenient to file suit against State Farm using Paulsen’s name. Such shape shifting is common for the girls as the reported ownership of the Trout Point Lodge and Dairy Farm has also magically morphed through time as we’ll explore in a later post.
Coming up in Part 3 Slabbed explores the lawsuit Aaron Broussard has filed against Outgunned author Peter Brown as I continue to meticulously lay down the trail of scams and political corruption that leads to Nova Scotia and Trout Point Lodge.