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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Legal maverick takes on apartheid
Ed Fagan
Ed Fagan also represented Holocaust victims

Ed Fagan says he is no "knight riding around the world on a white horse to make it a better place".

The American attorney says he is to file a lawsuit against Swiss banks seeking damages on behalf of South Africans who suffered under apartheid.

It is his latest in a list of mass lawsuits, but he says: "I'm a lawyer. I don't have to have friends. I have cases where there are victims."


His method is to go for the biggest companies on the biggest issues

Mr Fagan won fame, and a lot of money for his clients when he took the lead in getting Swiss banks to give $1.25bn compensation to families of Holocaust victims whose savings had never been passed on.

Now, he has two Swiss and one American bank in line for the benefits he says they received from the apartheid system which operated in South Africa.

And typically, Ed Fagan is using eye-catching tactics to get attention.

He is representing Dorothy Molefi, the mother of 13-year-old Hector Petersen, who was shot dead by police in Soweto in 1976.

Opponents enraged

During the Holocaust proceedings, he stood with Holocaust survivors on the steps of the banks and insurance companies they were suing.

His tactics have enraged opponents and some other lawyers. Even the leader of Germany's Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, once said: "Fagan is interested in nothing but making money."

Anti-apartheid rally
Mass protests and economic sanctions helped to end apartheid

He held up the end of a settlement to compensate former slave workers in Germany over how much the lawyers would get.

His legal effectiveness has also been challenged. Another lawyer in the Swiss banks case, Burt Neuborne, of New York University, said that Mr Fagan had played a "zero role".

But Ed Fagan does not apologise.

Minority of one

He has been in a minority of one before. He once struggled as a single lawyer in his New Jersey practice and took out advertisements (as many US lawyers do) asking people with claims to contact him.

He now has so much work that he is even accused of being overwhelmed by the number of cases he is handling and of neglecting some clients.


He is sometimes accused of charging into a case and of raising expectations which cannot be met

He still operates essentially as a one man band. And that has also been the secret of his success. His role guarantees media interest. This increases the pressure on the other side.

His method is to go for the biggest companies on the biggest issues - and there could hardly be anything bigger than the Holocaust and apartheid.

But he has also weighed in over the fire in an Austrian tunnel in 2000 in which 155 people died; over a nuclear power station in the Czech Republic which protesters in Austria say is a threat; and over BSE which he claims was spread in Europe by companies ignoring warnings about the danger of animal feed.

He is also sometimes accused of charging into a case and of raising expectations which cannot be met.

Direct tactics

But he knows, like other famous lawyers, that the law often needs a kick. After all, for half a century, Swiss banks fobbed off relatives who sought their families' missing money.

Mr Fagan lifted a legal tussle into the field of public relations.

And sometimes in such cases, it is not a point of law which wins a case, but the shame of a company.

It happened in Britain over Thalidomide, a drug which led to the birth of deformed children. The manufacturers did not admit to liability - but offered compensation anyway.

Another factor in Mr Fagan's favour is the widespread belief in the United States, and now increasingly in Europe, that class action lawsuits are the best way of getting back at rich and powerful companies.

Lawyers work for a contingency fee, which can eat up as much as 30% of the award. But they say that, without them, there would be no award.

See also:

17 Jun 02 | Business
19 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
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