Expensive lawyers line up in TN vs. MS lawsuit

Both the state of Tennessee and the city of Memphis have retained expensive private law firms to fight a $615 million lawsuit filed by the state of Mississippi over underground water rights, reports the Commercial Appeal. Mississippi has a famous law firm that won’t be paid anything – unless it wins.

The 22 percent rate increase that will add an average of $3.31 a month to the water bills of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division customers beginning in January was needed in part to pay for rising legal costs associated with the lawsuit filed against MLGW, the city of Memphis and state of Tennessee, officials say.

…The mounting legal expenses reflect the high-stakes nature of the water lawsuit, in which Mississippi claims MLGW, the city and Tennessee have “forcibly” taken its water through excessive pumping from an aquifer underlying both states. The Supreme Court in June granted Mississippi’s request to file the suit, and since then it has appointed a Special Master, Eugene Siler Jr., a former judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to oversee the case.

The utility and city have hired Memphis’ largest law firm, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, to defend against the suit. “It’s a serious case. It’s dangerous, and we’re certainly going to treat it that way,” said David Bearman, one of the attorneys handling the case for the firm.

…The state has retained lawyers with the Washington firm of Kellogg Huber, described by the website Above the Law as an “uber-elite, D.C.-based litigation boutique” whose ranks include 17 former Supreme Court clerks, six former assistant U.S. attorneys and several others who served in high-ranking White House and Justice Department positions. The firm specializes in complex trial and appellate cases and typically represents Fortune 100 companies, large banks, hedge funds, high-tech firms and states and government entities.

…But while MLGW ratepayers and Tennessee taxpayers ante up large sums for defense, Mississippi taxpayers won’t be paying anything for their state to bring the suit. The plaintiffs are led by renowned Lexington, Mississippi, lawyer Don Barrett, who has won landmark settlements against tobacco companies, automobile makers, pharmaceutical firms, tire companies, insurance firms and others.

“We’re doing this (water lawsuit) on a contingency. We lose, we won’t be paid anything. We win, we might get paid a lot,” Barrett said Friday.

“The state of Mississippi preferred to do it this way, and so did we. … We’re seasoned, experienced lawyers, and we’re going to win this case.”

Barrett said his firm has invested more than $1 million in preparing the water lawsuit. In previous cases, he represented the attorneys general of about a dozen states in litigation that forced Big Tobacco firms to repay those states for millions of dollars they’d spent in cigarette-related health costs.