The New York Times Magazine
The Miller quick coupler comes in a few different sizes. The one I tried out has the proportions of a laundry bin and weighs nearly 700 pounds. It allows the operators of hydraulic digging machines to switch buckets without ever leaving the cab. Two flanges rise from its sides, supplying it with the Volkswagen-like curves that inspired its nickname, the Bug. The flanges are drilled clean through with four holes set inside four bosses; beneath the front pair of holes are two upturned latches, like the open ends of two wrenches. Other than its poppy-red color, the device appears to be an ordinary specimen from the menagerie of heavy-duty construction equipment.
But in a Chicago courtroom on Oct. 26, the Bug will star in a multimillion-dollar dispute that represents a new frontier in the march of global capitalism. The nominal occasion is a paternity feud between two of the Bug’s corporate parents, Miller UK, the equipment manufacturer based in Cramlington, England, and Caterpillar, the American construction-equipment giant that was once Miller’s biggest customer. The themes of Miller UK v. Caterpillar are classics of the intellectual-property genre: greed, betrayal, bloodlines. But Miller’s method of funding its side of the production is something new. Rather than paying its lawyers out of pocket, Miller has turned to a private firm to front the money for its legal costs: the Illinois-based Arena Consulting, which is headed by two brothers, Herbert and Douglas Lichtman. If Miller loses, Arena gets nothing. If it wins, Arena will get a share of the proceeds, which could run well into the tens of millions of dollars.
This new form of lawsuit funding is called litigation finance. It lies at the crossroads of two Anglo-American tendencies. The first is our litigious side, in which we celebrate our equality before the law by dragging those who have wronged us before a judge. The second is our ingenious mercantilism, as demonstrated by our penchant for turning everything from church raffles to mortgages into marketable securities to be chopped up, bundled and resold. Like the celebrity bonds backed by royalties and popularized by David Bowie during the 1990s, litigation finance represents the expansion of securitization into hitherto virgin territory. Those involved in the practice argue that it allows smaller companies like Miller to afford a day in court. Detractors worry that it could give rise to a litigation arms race, with speculative money aggravating the already high costs of the American legal system.
Picture: St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons