Laurence Leamor’s The Price of Justice covers the more than decade long (and still going) battle in Caperton v. Massey Energy.  

This is the West Virginia case where a defendant lost a massive judgment in state court and then went out and replaced a state Supreme Court Justice via massive campaign contributions before the appeal was decided.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has only five justices, so one vote is huge. The bought and paid for judge refused to recuse himself from the case and predictably voted for Massey in the appeal. The other two justices who ruled in favor of Massey are also portrayed unfavorably in the book. One is married to the state’s premier mass tort plaintiff’s lawyer.

The insinuation is that it’s good for her husband if all the other plaintiff lawyers lose their appeals. Another justice always seems to rule for the corporate interest, except in cases involving the spouse of his fellow justice (the mass tort lawyer). So the plaintiff lawyer who’s wife is on the court wins, all the other plaintiff lawyers always lose. I don’t know this to be true. But that’s the impression the book leaves.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court with the legendary Ted Olsen representing the plaintiff. The Supreme Court ruled that the West Virginia justice should have recused himself.

The case was still pending when the book was printed. The plaintiff lost again at the West Virginia Supreme Court (this time on a forum selection clause) and the case was pending in state court in Virginia, some 15 years after the initial filing.

The main characters in the book were David Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, who both now practice with Reed Smith in Pittsburgh. The book also extensively explored the plaintiff (Hugh Caperton), CEO of Massey (Don Blankenship), the funny down-home trial judge, Ted Olsen and various members of the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Here are a few passages from the book that particularly hit home with me:

Fawcett may have seemed perfectly self-assured, but he constantly worried that he had not done enough and was not good enough. His underlying fear of imperfection was the great engine of his life. When one of his cases received a verdict that he did not think was fair or just, he blamed himself.

Throughout the month of February 2009, during the last four weeks before the Supreme Court arguments, Olson sat from early morning until late afternoon in a conference room, focused on nothing but Caperton. He took no phone calls, read no-emails…

People talked about civil suits sometimes as if they were tepid, academic affairs, but the emotions were enormous, and sometimes they almost ripped a person apart.

This is a great book. Every bit as good as a Civil Action, and probably better. More than any other book I’ve read, this book drives home how grueling litigating big cases can be to the parties and attorneys.

On the surface, the phrase “The Price of Justice” means the fact that Massey and Blakenship spent millions of dollars on campaign contributions to assure a win. But it’s deeper than that. Lawyers and their clients pay an emotional price over and extended period of time in big cases.

The book reinforced the following for me:

  1. federal court may be preferable to state court because cases are resolved faster;
  2. appellate judges should be appointed; and
  3. practicing law is a hard profession.

This is a great book. Highly recommended.