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Stan Chesley could hardly believe what he was hearing. It was Thursday, May 14, 1998, a night when most of the country was tuning in to the final episode of Seinfeld. Chesley, comfortable in his luxury suite in Washington, D.C.’s Willard hotel, wasn’t watching. Instead, he was talking with his longtime friend and colleague Wendell Gauthier–the New Orleans trial lawyer who had risen to national prominence as leader of the Castano group, a coalition of trial lawyers that had brought the first nationwide class action against Big Tobacco. Just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the hotel, Congress appeared poised to pass the McCain bill, legislation that would force the tobacco industry to pay out $500 billion, a good chunk of which would go to settle claims brought by Gauthier, Chesley, and other Castano lawyers. And yet Gauthier had more on his mind than just tobacco. As Chesley listened, he laid out his vision for another massive piece of tort litigation–this one targeting the makers and sellers of guns.

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