FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Republican-led Kentucky House voted Thursday to limit how much money outside attorneys can earn when hired by the state to pursue cases often pitting them against corporations and their high-powered legal teams.
The House passed the bill on a 52-40 vote after a long and politically-charged debate.
The action was quickly denounced by the state’s Democratic attorney general, who said it would hurt his efforts to pursue legal action to combat Kentucky’s drug problems.
“Their actions are yet another attempt to hamstring my efforts to drag these multinational drug companies into a Kentucky court to answer to our people,” Attorney General Andy Beshear said in criticizing House Republicans who supported the bill.
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Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, the bill’s main sponsor, said it’s aimed at making sure as much money as possible from any settlement goes to people hurt by a defendant’s actions.
Nemes said the bill wasn’t motivated by politics, and said he wants the state to pursue any abuses by drug companies, noting his family has been touched by the state’s drug woes. “This bill is about squeezing as much money as we can for those who have been injured,” he said.
Democrats were joined by a handful of Republicans in opposing the measure Thursday. The proposal now goes to the GOP-led Senate.
The attorney general’s office sometimes hires outside attorneys to help with big cases, most often against large corporations that have vast resources. Those attorneys don’t get paid unless they win the lawsuit. They sign a contract with the Attorney General’s office that guarantees them a certain percentage from a settlement or judgment.
Beshear’s office said the bill would greatly restrict its ability to recruit outside attorneys to assist with complicated, specialized cases. Seven of the top 10 bidders for a recent contract refused to offer bids within the fee caps proposed by the legislation, the AG’s office said.
Beshear’s office is involved in opioid-related lawsuits against some drug companies. Opioids have been the biggest culprit as Kentucky’s drug overdose deaths have surged in recent years.
Although the debate Thursday focused on the AG’s office, the House amended the bill to have it apply to the governor’s office and other constitutional offices.
The bill would set strict limits on contingency fees paid to outside lawyers.
Those fees would be capped at 20 percent of any settlement or judgment up to $10 million. Those caps would be lowered for amounts exceeding $10 million.
Opponents said the limits would diminish the AG’s ability to go after corporate wrongdoers.
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said the bill amounted to “legislative meddling” that would prevent the AG from hiring the best outside attorneys to square off against corporate lawyers.
The bill also would require the attorney general, the governor’s office or any another constitutional office to show that hiring outside counsel is needed. It also would require all records — including expenses — associated with the hiring of outside lawyers be made public.
The legislation is House Bill 198.