Lawsuit and Language Abuse Week

January 30, 2005

Dean Baker
Contra Costa Times, January 30, 2005

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services – October 27, 2004

The corporate lobbyists were out in force in September. They had created “National Lawsuit Abuse Week,” a big money effort to call attention to the frivolous lawsuit crisis.

If you don’t know what a frivolous lawsuit is, think of the suit against the tobacco industry. Because of this lawsuit, the industry had to pay billions of dollars in damages. The suit showed that the industry deliberately concealed information on the dangers of smoking, in the hope of getting another generation of children addicted to its cigarettes.

Another frivolous lawsuit may force the asbestos industry to pay billions of dollars to workers who developed lung disease or died as a result of exposure to asbestos. Lawsuits have proven that the industry concealed evidence of the dangers of asbestos from its workers for decades. Asbestos manufacturers were concerned that it would be hard to find workers, if they knew that the job might kill them.

A third type of frivolous lawsuit stems from situations like Love Canal, where a whole community found it was raising its children in toxic waste produced by area industries. Many of these children were born with birth defects, or developed neurological or muscle disorders that prevented them from living normal lives. Frivolous lawsuits threaten to make such polluters compensate their victims.

These lawsuits – and the wrongs that they address – don’t sound frivolous to most people. But make no mistake, lawsuits like these are the target of “tort reform” and the various efforts to reign in “frivolous lawsuits.”

Of course, the corporate lobbyists don’t talk about lung cancer, birth defects, and asbestosis when they discuss frivolous lawsuits. They refer to a few real or invented examples (yes, lobbyists make things up – that’s what they get paid to do) of ridiculous lawsuits. They tell the public that these ridiculous lawsuits drive up the cost of insurance, bankrupt honest businesses, and throw millions out of work.

While there are some ridiculous suits, they are generally dismissed quickly. Every day, judges throw out hundreds of lawsuits before there ever get near a jury. It takes a lot of time and money for victims of corporate wrongdoing to get their case to trial. The overwhelming majority of lawsuits never get that far, and almost none of the lobbyists’ poster child silly suits will ever be heard by a jury.

But, the crisis remains. The corporations are concerned that the deck is not stacked sufficiently in their favor. After all, they spend billions buying politicians so that laws on dumping toxic waste, pollution, or workplace safety are weak or go un-enforced. This investment will be wasted if victims of corporate wrongdoing can still turn around and get justice through the courts.

To cut off this avenue, the corporate lobbyists want to put up a new set of roadblocks designed to keep victims from ever getting their day in court. These efforts focus on “trial lawyers” because it sounds better to beat up on trial lawyers than the people who have been injured or killed as a result of corporate misconduct. The tort reforms they propose are designed to make it more difficult to hire a lawyer to go up against a big corporation.

For example, some measures limit the fees that trial lawyers can collect, even when they win a case. (Ever hear of Republicans wanting to limit how much people can earn?) They also want to make it easier to fine lawyers when they bring an unsuccessful suit. (How about fining corporations for bringing up unsuccessful delaying tactics?) The list goes on, but the point should be clear – tort reform is about denying people their day in court. And the corporations know that if you can’t get a lawyer, you won’t get to court. It’s that simple.

On this issue the presidential race gives us a clear choice. John Kerry and his trial lawyer vice-president John Edwards believe that the victims of corporate wrong-doing deserve a day in court. The Bush-Cheney ticket proposes “tort reform,” which in plain English means “you’re out of luck sucker.”

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

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