An American Scourge

Lawyers were recognized as threats to society even in the medieval times. Shylock the lawyer was the villain in Shakespeare's play, 'Merchant of Venice'. Even in our modern era, the greatest threat to American way of life is the menace of the trial lawyers. They have managed to put a chokehold on the citizens of this country. The threat to our freedom, contrary to belief, is from within and not extraneous. The terrorist campaign against American way of life has certainly opened our eyes to external threats. The internal threat may not be as dramatic but this slow growing cancer is insidious and corrodes the society from within. The trial lawyers make the laws and then profit from these laws with impunity. Like Shakespeare's Shylock, they are ruthless and heartless.

Many have felt that the broken tort system would eventually be this country's undoing. But the general public has been unaware of the hidden costs - to its pocket book as well as to the society in general ' of spurious litigation and huge jury awards. So far, the trial lawyers have been successful in fooling the citizens. With firm control over the legislature, they have been working for decades in order to enhance their own bottom line. To hell with the rest of us!
Drunk with billions of dollars of jury awards for tobacco suits, they have been eying the gun industry as well as the food industry (McDonalds is to be blamed for our weight problems). The asbestos fiasco is still in full rage. Many companies may go bankrupt if attorneys are not stopped from going for deep pockets. Most glaring example is General Electric, which acquired a small company recently. The smaller subsidiary company apparently had asbestos problems in the 1960's, which is now being pursued by the lawyers. General Electric being a large company (big fish) with more money, is being sued for asbestos contamination! The noose around the neck of Americans has been tightening slowly all these years and now they are finding it difficult to breathe.

Granted some of the culprits have been corporations that have polluted and shown total disregard to the common folks. These have been (as it should have) brought to their knees by timely investigations and litigations. But in most cases the drive to right a wrong is driven not by righteousness but by greed of the trial lawyers, who are awarded a bonanza for every case they win in court.

Only States that have enacted tort reform have been able to stay afloat. Limit or 'cap' on jury awards for so called 'pain and suffering' is the main reform that curbs insurance costs and runaway jury awards (more than half the money goes to the trial attorneys as contingency fees etcetera, and not to the people who suffered the injury!). Other States with no such curbs have seen their insurance costs skyrocket.

Many insurance companies have simply packed up and left these States. The citizens have been unable to find underwriting companies that write any kind of insurance. Doctors have moved to other states to avoid prohibitive malpractice insurance premiums. Services as basic as obstetrics or specialized as neurosurgery are not available in many parts of states that do not have tort reform. What used to be only doctor's problems now seems to be affecting everyone. The general public is certainly indignant but has failed to act in a cohesive manner to purge America of this scourge.

Businesses are reluctant to fight lawsuits and are eager to settle for a known amount rather than risk a trial in court where they may lose millions of dollars more. Frivolous lawsuits have increased dramatically due to the fact that settlements are likely no matter how un-meritorious the case may be.

The recent victories of Republican lawmakers and their control of congress have put a damper on the agenda of the trial lawyers. Until now, they have been working with the Democrats in congress, on whom they have a firm grip. Now with the balance of power tipped against them, their end game is close at hand. People are now more aware of the scourge of trial lawyers and have shown it in the polls recently by taking decisive action.

Case in point is Mississippi State legislature. After the recent elections that unequivocally showed the sentiments of the people against the trial lawyers, it went to work and passed a comprehensive reform of its tort system. The people of Mississippi are to be commended in exercising their democratic rights in the polling booths, when they even rejected three judges who were pro-trial lawyers. They even got rid of a sitting Supreme Court justice (not an easy task). The legislature went to work diligently for 82 days and passed a sweeping reform package that should make life in Mississippi bearable to its citizens once again. Not only did they cap jury awards, they even slapped a fine for frivolous lawsuits that should discourage this heinous practice. However, this was not easy task to achieve. The Lt. Governor of Mississippi announced that she was switching from Democratic Party to Republican Party after this dogfight of legislative session. She was disgusted to see how the Democrats had been bought and paid for by the trial lawyers!

Jefferson County in Mississippi had so many asbestos lawsuits - when counted, the number of suits were more than registered population of that county! Recently, the jury in Mississippi had awarded 150 million dollars to six people who had been exposed to asbestos. The problem was that none of the six was sick but the award was given with the possibility that they may become sick some day! The legislature also put a stop on lawyer advertising on television if they were not registered in the State. If nothing, every State should curb these advertisements in order to spare the population, who is being inundated with ridiculous so called 'public service announcements', paid for by the lawyers!

Way to go Mississippi! All this decisive action from a State in the Deep South with the worst literacy rate! There is hope for all of us (and for democracy), living in terror under the influential trial lawyers' lobby in other States (Florida is one of them). Now that the Republicans are in charge, such a reform package should make its way through the halls of Congress in Washington D.C. This is the ultimate test for the Republican Party, and they have two years to accomplish this. That is plenty of time as Americans have given them a mandate to do it. If they succeed in fixing some of the ills of the society, they will receive overwhelming support in the next cycle of elections.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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