Suing for Justice: Your lawsuits are good for America

Harper's Magazine
Friday, March 4, 2016

By Ralph Nader

In the mid-Seventies, tort reform became a virtual sub-economy that crossed industry lines. Aggressive corporate forces aligned with political candidates to press for deregulation. These amply funded corporatists and politicians — crueler, hungrier for power, and more ruthless than their predecessors — worked to repeal laws that protected the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted by defendants. This domestic strategy, not surprisingly, fit comfortably with the larger corporate aim of escaping accountability. The legal strategies undertaken by multinationals to undermine tort law were conceived by corporate law firms. Covington & Burling, and Shook, Hardy & Bacon, are two of the more prominent firms representing “tort deformers” and working largely in the shadows, as is their tradition. Well-funded front groups such as the Manhattan Institute, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drove tort-reform legislation at the state and national levels and shielded corporations from adverse public opinion. Large amounts of campaign cash were directed at lawmakers, especially those in charge of key committees. Multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.…

How, then, can the tort system withstand the attacks of the vast infrastructure dedicated to its destruction? Fortunately, trial lawyers have appealed a variety of tort reforms, most prominently award caps, to several state supreme courts. The high courts in Georgia, Missouri, and Florida have belatedly declared the caps unconstitutional (though there have also been successful moves to amend state constitutions in response, as in Texas). In addition, a small but determined number of citizen-advocacy groups have exposed the truth behind the tort deformers’ misleading propaganda, have opposed repressive legislation, and have informed the media. The Center for Justice and Democracy in New York, for example, headed by Joanne Doroshow, has brought a wide array of errors and distortions to light. The Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, Consumer’s Union, Consumer Watchdog in California, and Texans for Public Justice, alongside many small unheralded victims’ associations, are working together to preserve victims’ right to have their day in court.


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