"Really!?! with Seth and Amy" isn’t my favorite SNL Weekend Update sketch, but I have to say, it came to mind immediately when I heard that Sheila Birnbaum was appointed by the Justice Department today to oversee distribution of the new $2.5 billion fund for sick and dying Ground Zero workers.
Really? The only person in America who could do this job was a State Farm insurance company corporate lawyer who fought Katrina victims who were left destitute because State Farm and other insurers refused to pay their legitimate claims? And then she discussed her successes at a Web Seminar for the extreme-right Washington Legal Foundation?
Really? The only person in America who could do this job was a lawyer who has been so successful at crushing the claims of corporate negligence victims on behalf of her corporate clients that she has been dubbed the “Queen of Torts?” Really?
I mean really, the Administration believes this individual will be better at helping sick and injured workers than any lawyer with actual experience helping the sick and injured? And who generates media coverage like this from the Wall Street Journal?
Companies have often turned to Birnbaum, a former law professor and fourth-grade teacher, in times of distress. In 2004, she represented Chiron after the company received negative publicity for its flu vaccine. “Sheila was my quarterback,” said Nancy Koch, formerly a senior lawyer at Chiron who worked closely with Birnbaum during the crisis. Ultimately, the SEC formally closed its investigation without taking any action, a securities-fraud lawsuit was settled and the product-liability actions were dismissed.
Birnbaum has also helped State Farm in other big cases. In 2005, Birnbaum helped convince the Illinois Supreme Court to dismiss a class-action judgment of more than $1 billion against the insurer. She also represented State Farm before the Supremes in the big 2003 ruling that placed caps on punitive damage awards, a decision seen as a big win for corporate America.
“Sheila Birnbaum has been one of our most effective advocates in litigation for a number of years and has played a central and significant role in Hurricane Katrina litigation,” said Kim Brunner, State Farm’s general counsel.
Now, I don’t know Sheila Birnbaum and I realize that she has mediated some wrongful death and injury lawsuits on behalf of some 9/11 victims. And Ground Zero worker spokesperson John Feal, who worked tirelessly to get Congress to pass the $2.5 billion fund, has hopes for Ms. Birnbaum even though this was not his choice, so we have to be hopeful too.
(You can learn more about State Farm’s despicable post-Katrina behavior by listening to testimony from former Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor.)