Look who's behind “tort reform”

The Nation
Sunday, October 24, 2004

Few of the ultra-right’s obsessions have won such substantial backing from mainstream corporate America as tort reform. Corporate boards may have little stake in school vouchers or abortion, but every company wants to limit its liability. The total spent on lobbying, advertising, think tanks, endowing chairs at law schools and electing reform-friendly judges and legislators probably exceeds $1 billion over a thirty-year period, according to Leonard Salle, president of the Commonweal Institute and co-author of its report “The Attack on Trial Lawyers and Tort Law.” But despite two successful waves of tort reform in the states in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, in Washington antilawsuit bills died in committee. As an issue, “tort reform” had a chilly, academic ring, like lobbying for the metric system.
The solution was born in south Texas in 1991, when the Rio Grande Valley Chamber of Commerce, infuriated by a $2.5 million verdict to two Mexican-Americans illegally fired from a sugar mill, launched Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which plastered billboards across the valley with slogans like “Lawsuit Abuse: Guess Who Picks Up the Tab? You Do,” according to a joint study by the Center for Justice and Democracy and Public Citizen. The cigarette companies were already deeply involved in the issue, and Philip Morris provided generous start-up funding for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Thanks in large part to tobacco largesse, there were CALA groups all over the country by the mid-1990s. In 1993 and 1994, while a politically green George W. Bush received instruction from Mike Toomey, soon-to-be lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Karl Rove, a consultant to Philip Morris, was convincing Bush to exploit the lawsuit-abuse issue in his first gubernatorial campaign, according to the book Bush’s Brain, by James Moore and Wayne Slater. Tort reform proved a powerful weapon. Although of little interest to voters, the issue, according to Rove himself, was a magnet for corporate donations—among numerous other benefits.
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