How curious is it that, with scores of businesses tanking or taking cover under the quilted sheets of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, we keep hearing the drumbeat from big-biz interests about our so-called “out-of-control” legal system?
As it has occasionally since the mid-'90s, the San Diego City Council last week dipped its toes into the political morass that backers call “tort reform” and critics rename “tort deform.” On a 5-3 vote, the council proclaimed this coming Monday through Saturday as a time apparently for San Diegans to be on the lookout for frivolous legal proceedings.
Dubbed by the slim majority as “Lawsuit Awareness Week,” the six-day period is a tip of the hat to the “dedicated work of the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse,” an alleged grassroots group the five claimed “plays an integral role in restoring fairness and balance to the civil justice system by encouraging citizens to serve on a jury when called. CALA's mission is to educate the public about the human and financial costs of lawsuit abuse and therefore create a climate for change.”
“These groups we call AstroTurf, not grassroots,” said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the New York-based Center for Justice and Democracy, a national nonprofit group that is waging battle against corporate interests who “are more interested in immunizing businesses from legal redress” than touting the nation's jury system.
“Ironically,” she added, “CALA's entire agenda is about taking power away from juries.”
With assistance from the nonprofit group Public Citizen two years ago, Doroshow co-wrote an exposé titled “The CALA Files: The Secret Campaign by Big Tobacco and Other Major Industries to Take Away Your Rights.” It found that since 1991, tort reformers have “set up dozens of tax-exempt groups in at least 18 states to plant their ‘lawsuit abuse' message in the media and the public consciousness....”
While claiming to represent average Americans, these groups “actually represent major corporations and industries seeking to escape liability for the harm they cause consumers, whether it be from defective products, medical malpractice, securities scams, insurance fraud, employment discrimination or environmental pollution,” Doroshow found through reviewing the groups' tax filings and funding sources.
Councilman Brian Maienschein, who proposed the proclamation but was absent for the vote while his wife gave birth, sits on the advisory board of CALA's local chapter with a bevy of insurance, medical and legal insiders. Its Web site touts efforts to whittle away at class-action lawsuits, the Americans with Disabilities Act, securities-fraud and construction-defect cases and health-care liability.
Councilmembers Toni Atkins, George Stevens, and Ralph Inzunza Jr. opposed the proclamation, but only Stevens made mention of the group's efforts to make legal recourse tougher for average citizens. Curiously, Councilwoman Donna Frye voted in favor. Why? As a courtesy to Maienschein, a Frye spokesman explained. But typically, Democrats avoid this group like an unwelcome subpoena: No Democratic candidates filled out CALA's surveys for the upcoming election.
Admits Frank Clemente, head of Congress Watch for Public Citizen about CALA: “They've focused largely on trial lawyers and that's been very effective. But the beauty of the tort system is, it's a powerful tool to make society better. If anything, this last year of corporate fraud and abuse has shown us that companies need shareholders and consumers with strong legal rights to hold them accountable.”