When George McGovern Spoke Out About The Problem of Lawsuit Abuse

George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who passed away Sunday at the age of 90, was an icon of American liberalism.  However, as Newt Gingrich pointed out in Politico, he was also “a very complicated person.”

In 1992, eleven years after retiring from the U.S. Senate, McGovern surprised his friends and foes alike by writing a column for the Wall Street Journal in which he explained the problems he experienced while trying to run a country inn during his retirement.  His inn eventually went bankrupt, and he blamed excessive government rules and regulations – the kind he supported in Congress – as big reasons for the failure.

He also blamed one other thing: frivolous lawsuits.  Even after the bankruptcy, McGovern said “we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant.  Despite these injuries, not every misstep is the fault of someone else.  Not every incident should be viewed as a lawsuit instead of an unfortunate accident.  And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.”

His friends in the trial bar were not happy with that column.  Nor were his former colleagues in Congress who relied heavily on political contributions from trial lawyers to finance their elections.  But McGovern wasn’t afraid to speak the truth, and job providers around the country rejoiced at having this unlikely ally speaking out on their behalf.

McGovern was so passionate about the harm done by excessive litigation that he later made a TV ad with former presidential candidate and staunch conservative, Jack Kemp, to urge Americans to join him in the fight against lawsuit abuse.  It’s one of my favorite political ads but was seen by relatively few Americans since it had a very limited run on the air.  It was created for the American Tort Reform Association in the mid-1990s by one of the best political ad producers in the business, Cliff Pintak, and I was given a copy when I became president of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch in the late ‘90s.  I have posted it to YouTube here so you can see it, too.  You don’t want to miss this one.

A few weeks ago, before I knew that McGovern was in failing health, I devoted one of my “Let’s Be Fair” radio commentaries to this ad because it shows how, especially in this contentious political season, it is possible to rise above “politics as usual” to address our nation’s most vexing problems.

George McGovern meant many things to many people.  Yes, he was a complicated man.  I am hopeful that one of the things Americans will remember about him was his effort to reach across the political aisle to end a problem that continues to plague everyone from inn owners and other job providers to non-profit community groups to this very day: lawsuit abuse.

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