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August 30, 1987|Kevin E. Gallagher

FIREBALL by Robert G. Begam (McGraw-Hill: $16.95; 496 pp.). Attorney/author Robert Begam has taken the morass of complex civil litigation (wrongful death and personal injury), explained it in terms the reader will appreciate, and fed them to us in a most contemporary, interesting and accurate, yet predictable courtroom conflict.

The attorneys involved are very human and very real. The protagonists are members of a large New York law firm representing consumers injured and killed by a faulty tank car that exploded in a small Ohio town. The antagonists belong to a large, silk-stocking law firm, representing defendant manufacturers who made the decision not to spend a small sum of money to correct a defect that caused the conflagration with the ensuing injuries and deaths: "It's cheaper to risk killing people than to spend money to make the tank cars safe."

The court scenes are analytical and yet interesting. And Begam uses his story to explain the philosophy of the contingent tort system in the United States. "A Personal Injury lawyer puts out his own time and expenses of litigation, if he wins he recovers for both. If he loses, it was his loss, not the client's, where the outlay of time and money was concerned." A truly Jacksonian concept where the poorest farm worker or ghetto dweller can hire the best lawyers in the country. "Fireball" also illustrates how the tort system works, despite its shortcomings, a system some in the insurance industry would have us believe leads to a plethora of profligate judgments, and, if done away with, would save the consumer a great deal of money on premiums. Begam's novel eloquently advocates how society would not benefit were the tort system done away with. It is "a refined, beautiful and unique method of resolving human conflicts. No government regulatory agencies with overpaid bureaucrats looking over business's shoulder at every point. Just 12 jurors deliberating justice."

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