The Public Deserves to Hear the Facts on Tort Reform

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Common Dreams

The Public Deserves to Hear the Facts on Tort Reform

Another tort deform bill -- just one in a seemingly endless string of attacks on our civil justice system -- has failed in the Senate this week. American consumers should be thankful that the so-called "Class Action Fairness Act" was mired in election year posturing by both parties. Some - mainly Republicans and corporations - would have you believe that this is a "victory for trial lawyers." It is not. Sadly, this is not even that much of a victory for the aggrieved consumers who, as a result of the failed legislation, will retain access to their state judges and courts. No, maintaining the status quo by defeating this bill is just a makeshift buttress to slow the constant erosion of our civil justice system at the hands of corporate America's loyal soldiers who occupy the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

In the year running up to an election, Congress rarely passes contentious legislation. In fact, the Senate will now abandon class action legislation to pursue other hot election-year issues that stand no chance of bicameral passage. Our Senators will spend the rest of the year (and your tax dollars) taking staunch positions that will shore up their party base, but accomplish little else. Republicans will no doubt decry Democrats as "obstructionists" for blocking a class action bill. But they should be careful about making this issue a central one in the upcoming election lest the truth regarding tort deform actually emerge in the debate.

But with the presumptive Democratic Presidential Candidate's choice of John Edwards for the Vice President slot, Republican tort deformers and their corporate taskmasters have already ratcheted up their rhetoric. Even usually neutral business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce have brokenwith tradition to condemn the choice of Senator Edwards due to his career as a trial lawyer. While Republicans and business interests attack the character of John Edwards by branding him "a friend to trial lawyers," let us hope that the Senator from North Carolina will not shy away from the opportunity to make tort deform a substantive, national, election-year issue. The facts are on his side, and the public deserves to hear them.

Tort deform is little more than a legislated escape from accountability; a free pass to abuse consumers so that business can march on unfettered by those nasty little attempts to hold it responsible in a court of law for negligent actions. When it comes to molding our judicial system, the corporations know few limits to their contempt for Americans right to trial by jury. They do demand that corporation remain free to sue anyone without restrictions.

Class action lawsuits were initially created as a vehicle to offer a degree of fairness and efficiency to citizens collectively when pitted against the comparatively limitless resources of a predatory corporation. Multiple plaintiffs are allowed a more level playing field by pooling together their grievances because each taken alone may not warrant the expense of an individual lawsuit. A collective injury and established pattern of fraudulent or harmful behavior by a corporation as a whole is more substantial and often merits significant damages. This helps to deter future infliction of injury or fraud while properly compensating affected individuals as determined by state judges and juries -- the only people who hear, see and evaluate the evidence and law for such cases. No case has been made that state judges are unwilling or unable to control their courtrooms to a degree warranting this radical Federal preemption of state jurisdiction. Under the proposed legislation, innocent victims of fraud, labor law violations, civil rights abuses, unsafe products and environmental harm would be left with limited remediestoward the corporation's defendant.

So it should surprise Americans that without the slightest trace of shame, Stanton D. Anderson, Executive Vice President for the Chamber of Commerce said of the bill's defeat in the Senate, "This was a vote against America's workers, employers, and consumers that continue to be victimized by a legal system run amok." It is with these skewed distortions - one that reduces individual workers and consumers to pitiless abstractions who, when harmed, threaten profitability -- that we must interpret corporate cries of victimization by the tort system. Not even the high powered propaganda of the Chamber of Commerce can conceal the absurdity of Mr. Anderson's words.

Another popular tort deform effort in the Senate has revolved around medical malpractice. Its popularity is a direct result of the relentless push made by the insurance industry to gut the civil justice system as we know it. But before any American willingly accepts the insurance industry's propaganda claiming that doctors' insurance premiums are rising solely because of our legal system, we should demand full disclosure from the insurance companies. It is a known fact that lawsuits, lawsuit filings, and jury verdicts have all been trending downward in recent years. The insurance industry is driving the tort deform effort to make up for lost investment income in the bond market when rates were unfavorable. If the insurers want to claim otherwise let them open their books to public scrutiny.

Since it was founded, our nation's legislature has never attempted to federally tie the hands of judges and juries in the manner advocated by business interests today. The reason we are seeing tort deformers push the myriad pieces of legislation that would immunize doctors from malpractice responsibility; that would protect oil companies from cleaning up polluting components of gasoline from our drinking water sources; or that would makemore onerous the ability of class actions to succeed against wealthy cigarette manufacturers, asbestos manufacturers and other corporations, is because they need only establish a few federal legislative precedents to open the tort deform floodgates.

The resulting slippery slope would have lobbyists from every conceivable industry clamoring for their own set of legislated escapes from the law. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the tort deform debate - don't let Congress brush aside the most fundamental tenets of the judicial system, in case you are wrongfully injured or defrauded, to satisfy corporate avarice and greed.

For more information on this topic, please visit: www.centerjd.org, www.citizen.org, and www.consumerwatchdog.org

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