Sep. 15—The plaintiffs challenging South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson's payment of a total of $75 million to two law firms for their work in litigating the state's plutonium storage lawsuit can move forward with their claims.
The S.C. Supreme Court issued an opinion Wednesday morning reversing the circuit court's dismissal of the case due to a lack of standing and remanding the case back to the circuit court to litigate the claims of plaintiffs John Crangle and the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation.
The suit originated when South Carolina received $600 million from the federal government after the federal government failed to meet an agreed timeline to remove plutonium from the Savannah River Site.
Wilson paid a total of $75 million from the settlement funds to Willoughby and Hoefer, and Davidson Wren and DeMasters as part of a contingency fee agreement to litigate the state's claims against the federal government.
Contingency fee agreements are agreements between plaintiffs and law firms where the plaintiff agrees to pay a certain amount of any favorable monetary result obtained to the law firm in exchange for representation. Such agreements are commonly used in personal injury cases.
The foundation and Crangle then sued in state court asking for the court to declare that Wilson did not have the authority to make the payments.
Wilson and the law firms then asked the court to dismiss the suit because Crangle and the foundation did not have standing to file the suit.
Standing is a legal term meaning that the plaintiff, the person suing, has enough of an interest to bring the lawsuit.
Judge Kirk Griffin granted the motion to dismiss in a March 5, 2021 order, saying that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit.
That order was appealed by the plaintiffs to the S.C. Supreme Court leading to oral arguments in early April.
Justice George James wrote in the opinion that the motion to dismiss should not have been granted.
He said even though the plaintiffs could not allege a particularized injury, standing for the plaintiffs could be conveyed because the issue of whether Wilson can enter into contingency fee agreements with private law firms is of such public importance to require resolution for the future.
"By claiming Wilson improperly disbursed state settlement funds, Appellants [Crangle and the public interest foundation] indisputably allege an issue of public importance," James wrote.
He added the issue is sure to arise in the future because the attorney general's office has seven other litigation retention agreements with private law firms.
"For example, Wilson recently announced a $300 million settlement with opioid distributors," James continued. "The litigation retention agreement in that case contains a contingency fee agreement identical to the one here. There is a need for further guidance as to whether subsection 1-7-250(B) authorizes the attorney general to enter into contingency fee agreements."