Legal question about suing for illegal activity

I’m sure many of you remember the 60 Minutes report “Jackpot Justice” about large awards given out by juries in Southwestern Mississippi in product-liability cases. The Fen-Phen cases were prominent.

Now, CNN reports that the Justice Department is investigating to see if there was any wrongdoing in the makeup of the juries or in the recruitment of plaintiffs.

If all the plaintiff attorneys did was exploit the resentments of the jury pool, well, that’s good lawyering. Bad ethics, perhaps, but they “vigorously represented” the interests of their clients.

What is being investigated, however, is that the plaintiffs were related to some of the jury members and promised to split the award with the jury members. Also, that the plaintiff attorneys paid recruiters to find plaintiffs.

The former possibility would give rise to jury tampering charges, correct? What is the violation in the latter possibility? Is it a crime, or just a violation of practice standards?

One other twist is that one of the recruiters has sued one of the plaintiff attorneys for failing to deliver on promises of payment to find class members.

Is is my understanding that you absolutely cannot sue to recover moneys lost when they were promised as part of an illegal act. Am I wrong there? As I said, I don’t know what, if any, law may be violated by these promises. Assuming that, as context implies, this type of activity is illegal, then Anderson’s suit is the equivalent of filing a complaint with the police because a junkie didn’t pay you for the pot you sold him, right? I thought that this was considered against public policy.

I’m confused here, because if I’m right, then no attorney in their right mind would have helped Anderson file this. If I’m wrong on either or both of my assumptions, I’d like to correct myself.


You are correct. Generally, contracts which involve the performance of an illegal act are void, and will not be enforced by the courts.

There are exceptions. Some minor or technical violations of the law won’t void the contract. (Example under Illinois law: You hire someone to build a shed. Under a local ordinances, this means that the guy you hire needs a general business license and a contractor’s license. Neither requirement involves passing a test or any other competency check. The ordinances are solely designed to raise revenue. You discover that you contractor didn’t get the licenses and refuse to pay, saying that the contractor performed an illegal act in building your shed. Although you are correct, the contract most likely will be enforced. OTOH, if the license requirement is to protect the health and safety of the public (think architect, plumber, electrician), you’d likely win.)

Another exception comes into play where one contracting party is blameless, and has no reason to know of the illegality. (Maybe the contractor showed a fake license.) Occasionally, under compelling facts, a court will still give some relief to the innocent party.

Standard Disclaimers. Although IAAL, I’m not your lawyer. This is general information and not meant as legal advice applying to your situation. See a lawyer licensed in your state for that.

So my supposition that the use of paid “runners” to solicit for plaintiffs in a class action is also correct?

Fully understood. Fortunately, this is not my situation. :wink:

I’m not sure I understand your second question. Are you asking if paying money to a runner is illegal? If that’s the question, then the answer is yes, but not in the same way that an agreement to buy cocaine would be illegal.

I am unaware of any law that would make the runner’s conduct illegal, unless it rises to the level of practicing law without a license. It’s the attorney’s conduct in paying him that violates a state code of professional responsibility prohibiting fee-splitting. That makes the contract illegal, and unenforceable. (At least under Illinois law, and I’m reasonably confident that all states have a similar prohibition.)