This fiction book by John Grisham is entertaining and educational. It begins with a young lawyer working a hundred hours a week in a giant legal sweat shop snapping under the pressure, bolting out of the office, getting very drunk in the first bar he sees, and winding up in the office of two ambulance chasers based on an ad he sees about their specialty of defending drunk driving charges. The wife of the lawyer is perhaps the most understanding person on the planet, since she agrees with the decision to walk away from a job paying hundreds of thousands a year to one that pays perhaps a thousand a month. “Decision” is undoubtedly too strong of a word to describe the chain of events leading to the new job.
David Zinc’s new job is working with two men who can barely stand each other. They do have some skill at finding clients who might have a claim against someone or business that might have money. The woman who manages the office is much easier to like than either of the lawyers, and there is a crotchety dog that seems to have no role other than to occasionally growl when something irritates it.
David Zinc is portrayed as being meticulously ethical throughout the book, which might be the one part of the story some readers will find to be difficult to believe. I will say that there are some parts of the story that are predictable, but there are also some surprises.
One of the lawyers stumbles on the idea that the anti-cholesterol drug “Krayoxx” is killing people because of heart damage. He begins going anywhere there might be overly large people, such as an all-you-can-eat pizza restaurant, and hanging ads announcing the dangers of Krayoxx and offering the services of the law firm. Office activities become a constant search for people who have died after using Krayoxx or are still using the drug. The firm manages to sign up eight clients whose spouses have died and over 400 who are using the drug. They agree to join with a huge firm that has made billions in legal fees by specializing in suing drug companies.
The story that unfolds is an instructive trip through the process that is required to file and pursue a product liability suit and how the large pharmaceutical companies combat such suits. None of the three lawyers at the “boutique” law firm of Finley & Figg have ever been involved in such a suit, and there is an ominous feel to how they are spending money. They are forced to hire expensive “experts” willing to testify that a drug has caused damage regardless of whether the data actually supports such a finding. They also are burning through money from a loan on the office building to screen their living clients for heart damage. The results are not encouraging, unless the objective is to find healthy hearts.
Varrick Lab, the manufacturer of Krayoxx, identifies that that Finley &Figg is the least prepared law firm in the swarm that is gathering against them. They succeed at getting that firm’s suit to be heard quickly in the court of a federal judge who has a record of being impatient with frivolous suits. Oscar Finley, the lead lawyer for Finley and Figg collapses from a heart attack when he begins to give the opening argument and the other partner manages to cause a mistrial and accumulate $15,000 in fines and court costs by cracking a terrible joke, “Oh, the wonders of Krayoxx. Wally Figg, the remaining partner makes it through one day in court before he succumbs to alcohol and disappears. David Zinc is the last remaining lawyer to present the case for the firm, and his admirable wife agrees to set behind him and pretend to be a paralegal to give him moral support. The lawyers for the defendant seem almost compassionate about his dilemma.
David manages to make it though the case despite the horrible performance of their Russian-born “medical expert” who tries to explain why he thinks Krayoxx has damaged hearts in a mixture of Russian and broken English. The man who is supposed to serve as the next witness flees in terror before his court appearance. That leaves only the economist who presents information on how much the death of husband has cost the widow. The outcome of the trial is predictable, although David Zinc does surprise everyone in the court by making some strong points against Varrick Lab.
There are two side stories about David Zinc taking on the case of illegal immigrants being underpaid on a construction project and a Burmese couple, who are legal immigrants and whose son who is desperately brain damaged and ill from lead poisoning that resulted from ingesting paint on fake vampire fangs called “Nasty Teeth.” There is a somewhat difficult to believe story about David breaking the jaw of a man who posts anonymous blogs, including one in which he calls David’s wife a bimbo. David gets away with merely paying medical expenses.
I recommend the book and especially to people who own common stock in “big pharma.” The stocks of many of those companies are paying dividend rates that far exceed the traditional investments people have used for fixed income in the past, and there has been a rush to buy stocks that pay dividends. The book gives a running commentary on the price of Varrick Lab stock as it collapses with bad news about the lawsuit and rises when the news is better. People complain about the price of medications. The discussions of how much it costs to get a new drug approved and the litigation risks with putting it on the market made me think that the business has to be very profitable for companies to want to be in the business.