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Ignore the Lawyers, Help the People : The powerful trial lawyers lobby must not be allowed to stymie tort reform.

COLUMN RIGHT/ BOB DOLE

April 27, 1995|BOB DOLE | Bob Dole is majority leader of the Senate.

During the current Senate debate over legal reform, you will hear from the trial lawyers and their allies that legal reform is nothing more than a boost to big business.

But the facts suggest otherwise. Who is hurt by lawsuit abuse? It's the little guy, according to recent surveys by the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Texas and Tennessee, which found that one-third to one-half of small businesses have been sued or been threatened with suit for punitive damages. Because of this kind of lawsuit abuse, the Washington-area Girl Scout council must sell 87,000 boxes of cookies each year just to pay for liability insurance, and the average local Little League's liability insurance jumped 1,000% in a recent five-year period. These are just a few examples of a problem that is big and getting bigger.

Who profits from lawsuit abuse? The trial lawyers.

As the Senate considers legislation to reform lawsuit abuses, the buzzing sound you hear is the trial lawyers swarming to the defense of their hive of honey: the lawsuit lottery.

This picture, needless to say, is not the one trial lawyers would paint. According to them, they are the best (perhaps only) friends of the poor, consumers and women. They have one of the most effective public-relations efforts going. It is a costly exercise, characterized by millions in contributions to politicians and judges. Now they are mounting a $20-million campaign to stop lawsuit reform in the U.S. Senate.

Why? Lost in the fog of propaganda is a fact well-understood by most Americans: Our legal system costs too much for everybody (except the trial lawyers) and has turned into a lottery where even the threat of outrageous damages with little or no connection to fault extorts money and time from charitable organizations, small businesses, blood banks and volunteer groups. But, like any effective gambling operation, the house always wins. And the house in this case is the trial lawyers and the system they so ardently defend.

We need a system that ensures that those harmed by someone else's wrongful conduct are compensated fully. And we need to ensure that the system is not twisted in ways that deter folks from engaging in activities that we ought to encourage. That's why I have offered an amendment that would extend the protections against outrageous punitive damages now being considered for manufacturers to include volunteer and charitable organizations, small businesses and local governments.

These reforms are an attempt to restore fairness and integrity to a system that has gone awry. But, given the distortions from the trial-lawyer lobby, it is clearly time to confront a few of their most cherished myths.

\o7 Myth No. 1: Trial lawyers protect consumers. \f7 The California Trial Lawyers Assn. recently changed its name to the Consumer Attorneys of California. Some consumer champions. Across the nation, abusive lawsuits drive up the costs of all kinds of goods. As noted by the American Tort Reform Assn., half of the cost of a $200 football helmet goes to lawsuit-driven liability insurance.

\o7 Myth No. 2: Trial lawyers protect workers and the poor. \f7 The current system victimizes no group more than the working poor and the disadvantaged. Lawsuits add a $1,200 litigation tax on every consumer in America.

Meanwhile, some trial lawyers through contingency fees effectively earn thousands of dollars per hour.

The poor also pay in jobs. A RAND Corp. study estimates that wrongful termination suits have reduced the hiring levels in just one state by as many as 650,000 jobs.

\o7 Myth No. 3: Trial lawyers are champions of safety. \f7 Personal injury lawyers put out literature informing us that Americans live in the safest society in the world because of our civil justice system. The reality is that our legal system long ago crossed a critical threshold: It often makes our daily lives less safe. Lawsuits not only stop pharmaceutical research and new drugs. They cause industrial engineers to avoid safety improvements for fear that current designs, by comparison, will be interpreted as defective. They make all organizations fearful of the new--because in the hands of personal injury lawyers, "new and improved" has come to mean "new and open season for lawsuits."

Part of our heritage as a free people is a legal system where justice, not the search for a windfall, is the goal. Over the past 40 years, we have strayed from that path. The powerful trial-lawyer lobby must not be allowed to kill reform with a campaign of disinformation, distortion and delay. I am determined that this is the year that civil-justice reform will pass the Senate.

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