By STEVE COHEN

CHARLESTON -- While the economic downturn this holiday season has households everywhere retooling their Christmas shopping lists, a handful of West Virginians likely will be plotting a luxury retail bonanza.

The extravaganza could include vacation property at The Greenbrier, trans-oceanic getaways to five-star resorts, Aston-Martins, mega-yachts and other trappings befitting "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

Wall Street may have collapsed, but Michael Douglas' portrayal of Gordon Gecco has a tiny clique of personal injury lawyers in the Mountain State flaunting the mantra "greed is good." They share $126 million in legal fees from a lawsuit settlement.

Not that there's anything wrong with the capitalist spirit. What is disturbing is the pattern of a lawsuit industry enriching itself while its plaintiff clients collect, what is in comparison, a mere pittance.

There's the recent lawsuit settlement in a West Virginia court where the share of fees pocketed by a team of lawyers is $135 million, while their clients, at best, get a check for $9,000. And this summer another West Virginia firm settled a case from which plaintiffs may collect up to $291, but the lawyers get $475,000.

And remember that lemon law lawsuit not long ago where the plaintiff took home $8,750 but his lawyer's fee was $141,250?

The reputation of West Virginia's legal system takes a hit from such an incongruous ratio of fees to lawyers and what those "represented" by them get. Two of the aforementioned cases landed on a National Law Journal ranking published this spring which shows that three of the seven biggest verdicts in the entire U.S. over the past year were delivered in West Virginia courtrooms. This, in a state, that has a mere one-half of 1 percent of the nation's population.

One of those cases on the Journal list possibly begs for a reform that might improve the rap on courts here.

When saddled with a $392 million verdict, a major employer in the state was faced with no recourse to an appeals court, until the governor intervened citing the arbitrary computation of punitive damages. After all, West Virginia is one of just two states where the trial court can be both an original, and terminal point of jurisdiction, and one of just 11 states with no intermediate level of appeal in its judicial system.

One personal injury lawyer to share in the $126 million fee told a capital city newspaper he isn't sure how the total fee will be divided among three other law firms. This is not surprising since how such large fees are distributed is often a mystery.

This August two law firms in the state told a judge they worked "hundreds of hours" on a lawsuit settled with a pair of financial services firms.

But the judge, baffled by the ambiguity of whether that meant as few as 200 hours or, perhaps five times that, decided he would need the rest of the year to contemplate how their $3.9 million might be allocated.

Just in time for Christmas.

Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

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