Trial lawyers are licking their chops as the United States reopens more than two months after locking down due to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic.
John Houghtaling, one such trial lawyer representing part of a group of celebrity chefs suing insurance giants over the pandemic, described the forthcoming fight in a quote to the Washington Post as what he said is “going to be the most expensive legal battle in history.” He then predicted:
The insurance companies are going to win some of those, and they’re going to lose some of those. But in the meantime, the businesses are going to fail. People are going to be out of work.
Houghtaling is a managing partner at Gauthier Murphy & Houghtaling LLC, a firm in the New Orleans suburb Metairie, Louisiana. Houghtaling is testifying before the Democrat-led House Small Business Committee on Thursday afternoon, where lawmakers will discuss the liability issues as Congress considers potentially granting a liability shield to companies nationwide upon reopening—something many Republicans consider imperative to successfully return to normal as a society.
An outsized battle looms in Washington, as trade associations for trial lawyers push their own vision of open-ended lawsuits while groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce come down on the side of restricting litigation over coronavirus. The brewing fight in Congress, too, could become a hinge-point on whether there is a fourth major coronavirus relief package that could pass and be signed into law in the coming weeks and if there is one what it looks like. A source familiar with the fight told Breitbart News this will be a “billion dollar fight,” as powerful forces on each side—trial lawyers versus businesses—move in on lawmakers from every direction.
The issue that confronts lawmakers is how to limit the scope of litigation over coronavirus while also not giving away too much to the business community.
President Donald Trump said at a roundtable with restaurant executives earlier this week he hopes to strike the right balance, to “protect workers and businesses alike with curbs on frivolous litigation—frivolous litigation—a thing I know something about.” He added:
There’s a lot of frivolous litigation. So we don’t want someone going and sitting in your restaurant Tilman [Fertitta] and then suing you for $10 million because something happened.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said a liability shield for businesses from the kind of endless litigation that trial lawyers enrich themselves on is a must-have in any fourth phase coronavirus relief package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she is seeking to help out struggling state and local governments, and McConnell could pin a liability shield to that—forcing this issue to be addressed. McConnell has deputized Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) with addressing the matter, and sources with knowledge of the matter told Breitbart News the fight will surely intensify as the calendar changes from May to June.
Houghtaling is representing Thomas Keller, the celebrity chef who the Washington Post’s Tim Carman described as “the mastermind behind the three-star Michelin restaurants Per Se in New York and the French Laundry in California.” Keller is one of many restauranteurs nationwide suing their insurance companies because the insurance companies are not paying them for the shutdowns caused by COVID-19.
“The owners are pressing carriers to honor business-interruption policies during an outbreak that has wreaked so much financial havoc that it could bankrupt insurance companies and put at risk claims not related to covid-19,” Carman wrote in the Post.
In these particular kinds of cases, what these trial lawyers like Houghtaling and the others representing these various restaurants are looking for is for insurance companies to honor business interruption policies or to cover their clients like they would in a natural disaster even if the policies do not explicitly cover pandemics. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for trial lawyers as the reopening battle moves forward coast to coast—cases that could be forthcoming include against states for various policies they implemented like New York Gov.
Andrew Cuomo’s decision to force COVID-19 patients into nursing homes or against companies in the case of a worker who returns to the workplace contracting the virus. That’s not to mention consumer-led suits against any business where people think they may have gotten the virus, and so much more.
According to Politico, the American Association for Justice—a national collective of trial lawyers—released polling on the issue that forecast many potential lines of litigation that the attorneys may see coming.
“The trial lawyers hired Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm, which surveyed more than 1,200 voters online last week,” Politico’s Theodoric Meyer wrote earlier in May. “The pollsters told voters that companies want to prevent workers and consumers who contract coronavirus from suing them ‘even if they could demonstrate that the company engaged in unsafe practices.’ Sixty-four percent of respondents said they opposed giving companies such immunity, while 36 percent supported it.”
The Chamber of Commerce, which is squarely on the other side of the fight, released its own polling according to Politico showing the exact opposite.
“A poll conducted days earlier by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies for the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform found the opposite among 800 voters surveyed by phone,” Politico’s Meyer wrote. “Asked whether ‘Congress should protect many businesses and types of companies from lawsuits related to the coronavirus,’ 61 percent of voters agreed and 27 percent said no.”
But no matter who is paying out and who is receiving payments as a result of litigation, and no matter who wins and who loses lawsuits, the one group that always comes out on top is the trial lawyers. That “most expensive legal battle in history” that Houghtaling describes has but one absolute winner: the trial lawyers who bring the cases.
Houghtaling is a curious choice for Democrats in the House as a witness to push this line protecting endless litigation, as his political donation history aligns closely with top Democrats in Congress. Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports show that Houghtaling donated $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)—the formal Democrat Party arm charged with electing Democrats to the House—in 2014. Those FEC records show that he also made a $5,128 in-kind contribution to the DCCC for hosting the fundraising event at which he gave the $10,000. For instance, in 2000 he donated $1,000 to Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign in New York. Later, in 2016, he gave $2,700—the maximum allowable by law—to Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In fact, from 1998 until 2015, Houghtaling gave almost exclusively to Democrats.
But in 2014, Houghtaling founded an energy company called American Ethane Company, LLC. The company, which has ties to Russia and according to filings with the Louisiana Secretary of State even has a mailing address in Moscow, seems to have altered Houghtaling’s donation history. He started giving to Republicans, including former U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany—a GOP House member who ran for U.S. Senate—and other Republicans throughout the South in particular in Louisiana like Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and House GOP whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).
The establishment media has actually ripped Houghtaling’s energy company in its efforts to paint President Trump as close with Russia. In July 2018, the Guardian for instance ran this headline: “Former Putin adviser has secret investment in US energy firm praised by Trump.”
In the piece, the Guardian’s Luke Harding details how Vladimir Putin’s former chief of staff has a stake in Houghtaling’s company:
Vladimir Putin’s former chief of staff has a secret investment in an American energy company hailed by Donald Trump as creating jobs for American workers. Alexander Voloshin – who served as Boris Yeltsin’s chief of staff before working for Putin between 2000 and 2003 – has an undisclosed stake in American Ethane, a Houston-based firm that recently signed a multibillion dollar export deal with China. Voloshin is part of a consortium of Russian investors in American Ethane that at one point included the oligarch and billionaire Roman Abramovich.
There are plenty of other ties between American Ethane and Russia, but the company also has ties to the Chinese. According to the firm’s own website, it has made a number of deals with Chinese companies and has a Shanghai office.
But all of that aside, why the Democrats would brush all of these previous concerns about Russia aside to hype a trial lawyer like this amid the coronavirus pandemic and as the country seeks to reopen are curious—and could foreshadow that bigger battle many are talking about behind the scenes that’s about to burst out into the open.