Burned Tort Lawyers Plead Guilty to $200 Million Extortion Racket

Late last year, we covered the criminal case against Virginia-based attorney Timothy Litzenburg and his partners.

He was accused of approaching an international agrochemical company, presumably Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto, and threatening to weaponize the media and courts against them unless they gave his law firm $200 million.

The aim was to use recent verdicts to claim glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is a dangerous carcinogen, even though hundreds of studies by reputable bodies, including the FDA, have said there is no evidence for that claim.

In court, it was revealed that Litzenburg’s firm threatened Monsanto by pitching them a massive “consulting agreement” that would make future cases against them from the firm invalid because of the conflict of interest. The hope was that the company would back down and the lawyers would make off with a huge payday.

Last Friday, Timothy Litzenburg, of Charlottesville, and his partner, Daniel Kincheloe each pleaded guilty to extortion after a short trial. They will face sentencing in September.

Litzenburg and Kincheloe also admitted that after making their demand for $200 million from the company, they registered a Virginia corporation for the purpose of receiving money from the company, and that they agreed to split the funds among themselves and their associates, and to not distribute any of the money the company paid them as purported “consulting fees” to their existing clients. Litzenburg and Kincheloe admitted that after making their demand for $200 million, Litzenburg threatened that they and others would commence litigation that would become “an ongoing and exponentially growing problem for [Company 1], particularly when the media inevitably takes notice[,]” and that such litigation would cost Company 1 and its publicly-traded parent company “billions, setting aside the associated drop in stock price and reputation damage.”


This case is important because it peels back some layers on our nation’s vastly complicated tort or injury legal system, a pernicious cyclone of veiled threats, millions of dollars, unethical standards, and huge settlements to lawyers that often leave truly injured plaintiffs in the dust.

The incentives that exist in the American legal system make it possible for virtually any legal firm to trump up a case against companies or individuals. Often times, companies will choose to settle these cases for large amounts rather than have the case gain publicity, even if there was no actual harm or injury.

In a sense, the bigger a company is, the more likely they are to have a target on their back, no matter the claim that is brought up in court.

Though there are plenty of legitimate tort cases in which people have been harmed, there are just as many that are just outright frivolous and have no legal merit. Just think of the various cases against Google Maps because people took a wrong route and were struck by a car, or against Burger King because it’s meatless burgers aren’t really “vegan”.

Because the number of cases that can be heard by judges and juries is limited in a given year, the existence of these types of cases means that other cases, with real greviences won’t get heard.

And even if cases with real harms are eventually brought to court, it’s highly likely the plaintiffs will only receive a fraction of their deserved restitution.

It’s a system that overwhelmingly benefits injury lawyers at the expense of those they are supposed to represent.

Earlier this year, an analysis of large class-action lawsuits compiled by the law firm Jones Day found that that class members received an average of just 23 percent of eventual payouts — sometimes in the billions of dollars — and close to two-thirds went straight to lawyers instead.

These large settlements end up costing companies and the consumers that suffer from higher prices, not to mention the hundreds of potential plaintiffs who are not able to have their civil cases quickly heard.

Can you sue the ski hut where you contracted coronavirus?

European nations may be opening up their economies throughout the month of May, but that grand opening is likely to be dogged by the wave of COVID-19-related lawsuits.

We learned over the weekend that over 5,000 international tourists to the ski town of Ischgl, Austria are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the town and public officials. There are also being considered against ski resort owners in the area.

The lawsuit is being prepared by the Austrian Consumer Protection Association, which claims health authorities and the bar owners were “negligent” in not shutting down ski huts and restaurants earlier. They launched a website asking potential plaintiffs to share their information in order to join a future class-action lawsuit.

Often described as the “Ibiza of the Alps,” Ischgl made international headlines as an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. At one particular venue, Kitzloch, a German bartender reportedly tested positive for coronavirus on March 7th. The bar closed its doors two days later. The town went into lockdown on March 13th. Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter then issued a province-wide quarantine on March 18th.

By the end of March, nearly 1,000 cases across Europe could be traced back to the resort town, and as many of 1,500 to the region itself.

The complaint states that the delay from the first known case until the ski town was ordered into lockdown was “negligible” and that authorities should have “known of a threat of mass infection”. Some have even blamed “greed” and “toxic business” as the reason local officials and business owners waited before shuttering doors. But as covered above, ski lodges and restaurants shut before provincial and national lockdowns ordered them to.

The first death in Austria from the coronavirus wasn’t until March 12, after which the town of Ischgl went into complete lockdown. The national lockdown went into effect four days later.

Is this enough to make a case against ski huts and villages where tourists contracted coronavirus?

As my colleague Linda Kavuka has pointed out, the current pandemic is a living and breathing example of Force Majeure, an Act of God that indemnifies certain parties in lawsuits and breaches of contract because it is simply “beyond the control” of any person or organization.

That said, there are legitimate questions to be asked: should ski towns have shuttered their doors and closed down bars and restaurants earlier? Likely. But we simply didn’t have the same information then as we do now.

And considering the very disturbing revelations about obfuscation of information by both the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization at the outset of this crisis, it’s hard to place blame solely at the feet of local mayors and ski hut owners in the Alps.

(That’s why the U.S. states of Mississippi and Missouri have filed lawsuits against China.)

Of course, the fact that any skier or holiday goer would contract the coronavirus at a place where they were supposed to be enjoying themselves is a tragedy. Many people unknowingly spread the virus, were hospitalized themselves and died as a result. No one can excuse that loss of life and the grief that ensues.

But what we must hold uphold, in this situation and many more to come, is the facts and cases we allow to enter our legal system and our courts.

Classifying or assigning claims of negligence in the pandemic could likely mean thousands of unwitting public officials, business owners, and individuals will be held liable for what they didn’t know at the time. That would be a dangerous precedent.

We’ve often covered the incredibly litigious culture in the United States’ tort law system and articulated to reasons to reform it. Now, it seems, we’ll have to spread that same message throughout the European continent.

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