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When justice is a long row of zeros

US courts are making huge awards in personal injury cases. Introducing a 'no fee, no win' system to Britain need not lead to such large pay-outs; Stephen Ward meets a doyen of personal injury lawyers in the US
Richard Grand gives ammunition to both sides of the contingency fee debate, demonstrating the awesome power of advocacy in a free market. He once persuaded a jury to award damages that bankrupted a whole town, and offers this view on justice: "There is no such thing as justice. It's whoever can get the most money."

Mr Grand, aged 65, of Tucson, Arizona, is a doyen of personal injury lawyers in the United States. He has made a fortune from taking an average 40 per cent of his clients' winnings. And those winnings have been, by English standards, phenomenal, and they are often in cases which in England might never have reached court.

Last month, the difference between the two legal cultures was highlighted by the £12m awarded to the widow of a victim of the Lockerbie air disaster against Pan Am and the security firm that failed to stop the bomb being planted.

Relatives of the 11 victims who died on the ground, who had to sue in Scotland, are thought to have received less than £20,000 each in out-of- court settlements.

Mr Grand founded and chairs something that British barristers would, publicly at least, find materialistic and even crass, a group known as the Inner Circle.

It is a network, founded in 1972, of 99 men and a woman from among the most successful personal injury attorneys. The qualification to join was to have fought at least 50 personal injury jury trials and gained at least one $1m pay-out.

It is easy to see why he is chairman. Since 1962, he has not lost a case, and in more than 60 cases he has won damages of more than $1m.

In 1962, he lost two cases in a row. The second was a woman in high heels who fell on the grass and hurt her leg. "I never take slip-and-fall cases now." He hasn't lost a case since.

For all his apparent cynicism about justice, he never acts for insurance companies, but fights against them, usually for the little guy. "I like to represent injured people," he says. "For a brain-injured person, money makes a difference."

He has just won $3.55m from Cochise County, Arizona, for the widow and family of a 74-year-old shot dead in his home. It was the county's fault because the killer had just escaped from one of its jails.

The crucial difference between Britain and the US is that American juries still determine damages, while in Britain this is left to the judge. The American system gives the advocate supreme power.

"Juries change the game," he says. "A judge has seen 500 brain-injured babies. Judges are better on liability, juries better at assessing damages.

"I can read a jury most of the time. I know how to touch them, how to get them to agree with what I'm telling them. Sometimes they have to be shocked, and other times handled softly. Knowing the difference is the secret."

He believes that insurance companies should settle sooner, out of court. In the case where he bankrupted a town, it was because they went over the insurance liability limit on their policy. If they had settled out of court, the limit would have covered it.