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As president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, Kenneth M. Rothweiler of Weinstein Goss is certainly no stranger to swift, aggressive litigation. But on Friday, he joined with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s statement calling for a moratorium on civil lawsuits that might arise out of Tuesday’s acts of terrorism. The PTLA and ATLA are “all on the same page” with the idea, Rothweiler said, as is the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, according to PaTLA President Clifford A. Rieders of Rieders Travis in Williamsport, Pa. “We support a moratorium, or forbearance,” for filing cases arising out of the Sept. 11 tragedies, he said. “We agree with [ New York Times columnist] Thomas L. Friedman, who called this ‘World War III.’ We think there is truth to that, and that means we need a 100 percent commitment to victory. But what makes us different [from the terrorists] is that we subscribe to a nation of laws.” And that requires some restraint, he said. “I know as lawyers we’re trained to be aggressive and to step in and advocate,” said Rothweiler. “But all we’re saying is that there are things right now that take priority over immediate litigation.” The statement from ATLA, released Thursday, called for lawyers to “enter a period of national unity that should set us on a course of comfort, care and respect for the privacy and anguish of the families who have experienced this national tragedy in the most personal of ways.” None of the trial lawyers’ organizations prescribed a specific time length to wait. Neither PaTLA, ATLA or PTLA gave a time frame to hold off on filing. Rieders said it was “too premature to set. … In the future, we will take that up and discuss it.” Rothweiler said that timing should be decided on a “case-by-case basis.” And ATLA’s statement, issued by ATLA President Leo V. Boyle, did not address specifics of timing at all. Although none of the moratorium advocates could put their hands on a time frame, all of them stressed restraint and decorum about when to sue. But if there is something to be said for restraint, there also is something to be said for interviewing witnesses while their memories are fresh, and while they are still available. Still, Rieders said that shouldn’t be a concern. “The bottom line is, there’s nothing that prevents lawyers from collecting information,” he said. “Investigation can still be done without filing.” Rothweiler said, given the fact that there is a two-year statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, there is ample time to file. Given that filings take so long to get to trial as well, filing now isn’t going to get a client the immediate help he or she needs, which government and other monies may do, he said. “We’re not saying a client can’t retain you. We’re just saying, we don’t need to run out and file suits tomorrow. We’re saying, hold back and let the leadership of our government move forward. And I think that it will,” said Rothweiler. “We need to cut our aggression back for a moment.” If timing is all a matter of discretion, does the call for a moratorium have any teeth, or are these statements from the bar merely an attempt to make lawyers look less bloodthirsty to the public? Rothweiler admitted that “I would hate to tune in [to ABC-TV news] and hear Peter Jennings announce that 1,500 lawsuits have been filed,” because of the way that would sound to laypeople. It wasn’t long ago that the U.S. Supreme Court put the issue of lawyers as ambulance-chasers in the national spotlight when it decided Florida Bar v. Went for It in 1995. The Court upheld the Florida Bar Association’s 30-day waiting period that lawyers were required to honor before soliciting accident victims and their families via direct mail. In the opinion, the majority discussed the public’s view of lawyers from the Florida Bar’s exhibits: newspaper articles like “Scavenger Lawyers” in The Miami Herald and “Solicitors Out of Bounds” in the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. That view of lawyers was something the bar said it was trying to prevent. The Florida Bar also surveyed citizens and presented the responses to the Court. One person said he was “appalled and angered by the brazen attempt” of a law firm to solicit him by letter shortly after he was injured and his fiancee was killed in an auto accident. Another described how she was “astounded” and then “very angry” when she received a solicitation following a minor accident. Finally, one citizen wrote, “I consider the unsolicited contact from you after my child’s accident to be of the rankest form of ambulance chasing and in incredibly poor taste. … I cannot begin to express with my limited vocabulary the utter contempt in which I hold you and your kind.” It is an image that lawyers are still fighting, although Rieders said that “bars and lawyers generally do a good job of policing ourselves.” Rothweiler said he did not envision lawyers rushing to New York to solicit people, “although that kind of thing has happened before.” Attorney Arthur A. Wolk of Wolk & Genter, who practices aviation law locally and speaks nationally on the issue, said he, too, thinks filing now may be premature. He initially declined to speak to The Legal Intelligencer when he thought the interview was only to discuss what litigation would arise out of last Tuesday’s events. Still, he said he disagrees with the position that ATLA, PaTLA and PTLA have taken. “What matters is the best interest of the client,” he said. “Look, I think it’s disgusting to even talk about filing lawsuits at this point. But I don’t need ATLA telling me what to do based on their view of good taste. My mother taught me that.” While Wolk said that ATLA, PaTLA and PTLA may have wanted to sound patriotic by calling for the temporary moratorium on filings, he also said he believes it was the wrong way to go. “I think it wasn’t very well thought out. We, as lawyers, may be the only voice to counter these knee-jerk impositions on our freedoms. We ought to be fighting against them, not adding to them. “I am 100 percent against any organized imposition of any bar of lawsuits, because it implicates civil liberties,” he said. “I don’t plan to file now, but I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t. “There are children who [now] have no parents. Wives who have no means of support.” Wolk said initiatives like the moratorium only further the ends of the terrorists. “I’m very concerned that we not let the terrorists win, because their whole desire is to impact our free society. It is a step-by-step erosion of freedoms in this country. We’re being impaired in every aspect.” “We are sending the wrong message. This is not a PR issue; this is a civil rights issue. We should make sure civil liberties aren’t impeded; that’s the best face lawyers should be putting on today.”

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