Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The King of Torts

The King of Torts
© 2003 John Grisham
472 pages

"Why won't they just throw money at me to make me go away?"
"Now you're thinkin' like a real mass tort boy!"

Clay Carter is an underpaid and overworked Public Defender, providing legal services to the poor and needy. The job attracts idealists, but Clay isn't one: he took it out of desperation when his father's law firm collapsed and he needed a job. It impresses no one, least of all his girlfriend's nouveau-rich parents who made it big in development and are now firmly entrenched in the world of the rich and vain.  From the shadows, a Mephisto-like character named Max Pace offers Clay an opportunity to enter that world. If he's willing to do a little clean-up work for Pace's client -- offering millions of dollars to a particular group of company's victims in exchange for silence -- his fees will be $15 million.

$15 million is a lot of money for an ambitious guy like Carter, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. If all goes well, Pace's own firm can give Clay the inside dirt on a harmful product of their competitor's. Clay can sue the rival firm and sack them for millions and give Pace's firm an edge in their on-going competition. Thus Clay is introduced to the world of mass torts. The formula for winning is simple: pour millions into television advertising to scare those who have taken the product into calling the law firm and being tested, gather a few thousand victims of the product, and sue. The numbers and potential for damages will encourage the sued firm to settle quickly, the combined fees will net Clay millions of dollars for doing almost nothing in the way of litigation. It isn't law, exactly: more like a shake-down with paperwork. He's thus catapulted into the world of the jet-set -- and the jets are real, as he learns when he attends a mass-tort lawyer convention and enters casual debates about the merits of the new Gulfstream jets. The anonymous public defender once sharing a dismal apartment now frets about boats, jets, houses in the Bahamas, and clothing for his newly-acquired supermodel arm candy.

The King of Torts might be subtitled The Rise and Fall of Clay Carter, for Carter is nothing more than a high-stakes gambler on a winning streak, and sooner or later the bubble is bound to burst. Clay's path to financial success has left a trail of short-changed clients and ruined lives behind him, and a tenacious lawyer who specializes in attorney malpractice is soon on his trail.

The King of Torts is one of my favorite Grisham works to read, although it's not as finely-crafted a story as The Last Juror or The Rainmaker. Carter's rise and fall are dramatic: the money goes to his head, but he's never completely corrupted by it. As with a few other of Grisham's works, Torts also has a point as he uses it to air the mass tort community's dirty laundry. He does this not out of sympathy toward the pharmaceuticals and manufacturing firms which are taken down by these lawyers, but with an eye toward the future: if abuses like Clay's continue, government reform may muzzle the ability of consumers to take action against irresponsible producers in the future.

On that basis I'd recommend it, but Torts is also light fun. I picked it up for some leisure reading between more serious works and couldn't quite put it down.


  1. I tried reading this some years ago. After all, I'd read almost all other of Grisham's books. And there you have the reason why I didn't finish this: it's just like all the others! Seriously, this guy repeats himself more than Dan Brown with the Robert Langley books. Shame.

  2. Sorry, Langdon. Too much CIA...


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