Trial Lawyers Fight Anti-Consumer Lobbies on Tort Reform

The American Association of Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) has launched a new campaign to educate consumers about their rights to bring civil suits to redress wrongs including medical malpractice, damage from defective products and drugs, and negligence or wrongdoing by large corporations.

Take Justice Back” features a website where consumers can learn about tort reform, patients’ and plaintiffs’ rights, and real-life cases in which regular people are fighting for their rights to access the courts and see justice done.


‘Take Justice Back’ Launched

The AAJ announced the campaign on Nov. 13. “We are launching this campaign as a way to tell Americans why the civil justice system is so important, who is attacking it, why it’s being attacked and what to do about it,” said AAJ President Mary Alice McLarty.

“We see it as a community and a place for people to learn about the threats against civil justice system,” she explained “And these threats have been pushed by powerful corporations for more than 30 years.”


Tort Reform Threatens Trial by Jury

Those threats include activity by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of businesses across the country and has been active in the areas of tort reform and political advocacy for the rights of corporations.

The AAJ says the Chamber works tirelessly to “eliminate the constitutional right to a trial by jury” and adds that through its Institute for Legal Reform, the Chamber “actively works to close the court house doors to Americans and shield corporations from accountability [when] they knowingly hurt and mislead consumers.”

Under the banner of tort reform, groups like the Chamber and others support damage caps on jury awards in medical malpractice and defective products cases, and they have supported changes in the law that have limited class actions, according to the AAJ.

Mary Alice McLarty

“Caps protect hospitals and doctors whose negligence was responsible for your injury, but they don’t protect you,” according to the AAJ. “Some people are left unable to pay their medical bills. Just as bad: caps also mean there is less incentive for careless doctors or irresponsible hospitals to clean up their act.”

“The tort system has been under attack for decades and continues to be,” AAJ spokesperson Chris Scholl says. “Every Congress holds multiple pieces of legislation advocated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other ‘tort reform’ groups that have money-driven agendas. Similar bills exist across the country in state legislatures.” One section of the AAJ website allows you to click on your state to see if there are damage caps effective there.


Class Actions Limited

Another target of the AAJ’s ire is the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in AT&T v. Concepcion, which limited consumers’ ability to bring class actions – much stronger ways to force corporations to account for negligence or other wrongs. Consumers must now submit to arbitration of any class claims.

PayPal recently took advantage of that ruling to limit its users’ rights to sue in the case of disputes by changing the fine print in its agreements. “In order to use PayPal, consumers must give up their rights to the court,” says the AAJ. “Forced arbitration is just one of the many insidious ways corporations have schemed up to bypass the civil justice system,” said McLarty.


Litigation Serves a Role

Given that our government has an important role to play in policing corporations (through the criminal justice system and laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley), why should people be encouraged to spend more time and money in litigation to do the same thing?

“Government regulation is essential but it sets minimum standards for performance,” says Scholl. “When there is no regulation – or the regulations are not enforced or under-enforced (the recent meningitis outbreak is a tragic example) – the civil justice system is the last stop for consumers.”

“It’s not a question of whether regulation duplicates the civil justice system,” Scholl continues. “They both do very important things, and they are not, should not, be mutually exclusive. These are both fundamental tools in a healthy democracy, just as the nation’s founders recognized.”

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