“Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen…”

Miami, Florida, asbestos litigator Louis S. Robles is one of those people who give the legal profession a bad image. Robles’ firm was highly successful between 1989 and 2002 in prosecuting asbestos lawsuits. During that time, the firm represented over 7,000 clients, against corporate behemoths like Johns-Manville, Owens-Corning and the Great Satan of Asbestos itself, W.R. Grace. According to an indictment, Robles collected well over $164 million in some 75,000 settlements on behalf of his clients. As is common practice, Robles took asbestos claims on a contingency basis, meaning he and his firms were entitled to a percentage of the settlement.

For Robles, this was between 33 and 40%. He also assessed his clients “non-specific charges” for phone, fax, postage and photocopies, a monthly $10 fee for storing client records, and occasionally a fee to cover “extraordinary computer costs.” According to Florida State law, an attorney is obliged to maintain trust accounts for clients for all monies resulting from settlements. The client is to receive his/her share as soon as such funds are available, and the lawyer or law firm is required to keep clients informed and provide all information regarding these monies requested by clients. Through the use of elaborate accounting tricks–and because settlements from injury cases are not usually paid immediately–Robles was able to use much of the settlement money to maintain an extremely flamboyant and opulent lifestyle.

His misuse of trust funds was exposed as the result of a four-year investigation by the Florida State Bar Association. Robles’ law license was revoked in 2003. He declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Last week, Robles pleaded guilty to misappropriation of $13.5 million in settlement funds rightfully belonging to asbestos victims–ten times what could be recovered from Robles’ frozen bank accounts. Now, victims who were entitled to money may receive only a fraction of what they were owed. Some of these victims have been waiting since 1992; others are unaware that they are owed money. They may be able to recover up to $50,000 each from a security fund maintained by the Bar Association, but according to U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt, who dismissed a class-action lawsuit last year, they will have to file individual claims–which could take years. Meanwhile, Robles is scheduled for sentencing on 4 December, and faces 15 years in prison.