Open for business: US-style lawyers who like to say 'sue'

Litigation/ 'fast response' network
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The Independent Online
GRAHAM ROSS is a sharp, aggressive British lawyer of the new breed, and last week he launched a sharp, aggressive legal service which edges British litigation closer to the American example.

Thanks to Mr Ross, who is drumming up business for his national "Alert" network of lawyers, it seems that the type of US lawsuits that have long appalled and baffled British audiences - to do with spilt scalding coffee, or the misery of a bad hairdo or a cancelled date - are more likely than ever before to succeed in this country.

When eventually we read of the British equivalent, say, of the failed suicide who threw himself in front of a New York subway train but lost his legs rather than his life, but then managed to win $10m in compensation from the transit operators, one suspects that Mr Ross will somehow be involved.

Last Wednesday, Mr Ross was in his Liverpool office, wearing an Yves St Laurent shirt andquite large spectacles. He had appeared on a television documentary the previous night, and today he was being telephoned by potential clients. Ross looked through his messages: "There's someone here who was mown down by a herd of cows... A mouse in a loaf of bread. That's the sort of case you could get your teeth into, ha ha."

As of yet, Alert is all PR and no trousers, but the idea is this: to have the law "push itself to the front of the queue" and set the wheels of complaint in motion. A network of firms of like-minded solicitors will fund "pro-active" research. Without any approaches made to, or by, victims, Alert will conduct its own private investigations into, for instance, the heat of a McDonald's cup of coffee. They will scan for information on the subject, paying special attention to the Internet. If it looks like there is a legal case, Alert will advertise for clients. A multi- party action may then get under way.

This obviously suits a certain kind of case - one where the victims are not entirely aware of their victimhood. (People who know they have a claim - after being run over, for example - will not wait to see an advertisement before seeking redress.)

However, for Ross's critics, both Alert and much of the rest of the kind of aggressively-sought personal injury work undertaken by his firm, J Keith Park and Co, hurries Britain towards a "victim culture", in which responsibility is abandoned, and in which nothing is allowed to be a mere accident.

Ross's work also causes more general discomfort about excessive marketing in the legal profession. After watching Ross hustling on television last week, another solicitor in the personal injury field said he was "embarrassed" to be in the same profession. "But sources of income for solicitors are getting tighter," he said. "That's why you're getting this kind of - I don't know if this is the right word - initiative."

Ross is having none of this. He admits to his own commercial interests, but argues that aggressive litigation helps to produce a safer world - drugs become less dangerous, product hazards become more clearly marked. Ross is proud of his own important successes in, for example, the field of HIV-infected haemophiliacs.

Furthermore, he does not accept that the McDonald's coffee case, in which an 81-year-old American woman won $3m for burns from spilt coffee, was as daft as most people think.

"There are federal statutes that say they have to give notice of any risk of injury. That woman spilt a liquid that gave her third-degree burns. I'm sorry, but if I spill a coffee and get third-degree burns, I don't accept that I have to say, 'Oh, that's life'."

Ross is currently dealing with a case where a man in the Navy became an alcoholic. "To be honest, my first reaction was 'Come on'. Then I read his papers. This guy had been years at a desk job, at shore. And then he's put out to sea in a responsible position... he's on record as saying to his employers, 'I can't do this'. And it worried him, because he was being asked to take on a responsibility for the lives of people, and he wasn't a good sailor.

"If you have great stress, what do you turn to? If everyone is down in the bar, you turn to alcohol. And I thought, actually, that there might be something to this, not as an alcohol case, but as a stress at work case. We simply sue for the stress if we can show it was caused by working conditions that they knew about, and could have done something about - could have sent him ashore - but didn't. He is in no bargaining position to walk off that ship and say, 'I don't want to do it'. That's his life, his career. The only way that he can stand up for himself is by seeing a solicitor."

On Wednesday, Ross had lunch at the Cafe Internet at North John Street. Walking back through Liverpool, he seemed to be eyeing the uneven pavement slabs with great affection.