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.

School District Decides To Remove All Swing Sets After Too Many Lawsuits

Once again, we see children losing a favorite activity because personal injury lawyers can’t resist the urge to sue a school.

This time, a lawyer in West Virginia sued the Cabell County school district after a child was injured while using a swing set at one of their schools.  The district settled the lawsuit for $20,000 and is worried about more lawsuits, so they are removing all swing sets from all the schools there.

The safety manager for the school district was quoted in the Huntington Herald Dispatch saying, “In talking with our lawyers about this issue, they told us we might as well pull out our checkbooks if we’re going to continue using mulch around swing sets.  These types of lawsuits are apparently occurring around the country.”  See the full story here.

It wasn’t long ago when schools were on the leading edge of safety efforts if they put mulch around swing sets.  Mulch is softer than the regular old ground human beings have been landing on for centuries when jumping off swings.  But nowadays, injuries that have been part of life since the invention of the swing are simply fodder for trial lawyers trying to make a buck at everyone else’s expense.  The plaintiff lawyers argue the landing area should have been softer, but it seems that no matter what schools do, the landing area is never soft enough.

Unfortunately, the real losers here are the children.  They can’t vote and don’t write letters to the editor, so they’ll have to find something else to do rather than swing on a swing set at recess.  We’ve seen this with community swimming pools, Little League baseball, parks and recreation areas run by local governments, and even the Girl Scouts are not immune from the lawsuit epidemic.  Folks, this is all about quality of life – are we really better off with all these lawsuits?  Of course not.

Fortunately, the rest of us can speak up and try to make sure that swing sets don’t vanish from the schools our own children attend.   What can you do?  How about ask your candidates for legislative and judicial seats how they feel about this issue.  Do they support reasonable limits on lawsuits?  Do they accept contributions from trial lawyer associations?

I’ve debated presidents of state trial lawyer associations many times, and never –not once — have they admitted there is a problem with frivolous lawsuits in America.  I wonder where they’ll be when the swing sets are being removed from schools in Cabell County.  Probably filing another lawsuit.

South Carolina Supreme Court Overrules Junk Science And $18 Million Verdict In Acceleration Lawsuit

Anyone interested in the legal and consumer safety ramifications of the alleged acceleration problems involving Toyota vehicles will want to take note of a decision just handed down by the South Carolina Supreme Court in a case involving another automaker.

A 2006 jury verdict against Ford Motor Company involving an alleged cruise control problem was overturned by the high court in South Carolina because the Court believed the case was built largely on junk science offered by a so-called expert.

According to Chief Justice Jean Toal, the expert hired by the plaintiff lawyer to testify about cruise control issues had “no experience in the automobile industry, never studied a cruise control system, and never designed any component of a cruise control system.”  However, based in large part on that “expert’s” testimony, a jury had handed down an $18 million verdict, and a major American job provider was subsequently forced to spend countless hours and financial resources on appeals before justice prevailed.

Lawsuit abuse can take many forms, and this was definitely one of the worst examples.  While outrageous lawsuits like the one that created a need for the “Caution: Hot” wacky warning label on a cup of coffee often get the headlines, other examples of lawsuit abuse that involve important but complicated issues often don’t make the nightly news…even when they are more serious and do more damage to our economy.

At this point in time, no one really knows how many of the allegations against Toyota are real and how many, if any, have been fabricated.  However, it is crucial to thousands of jobs and the safety of millions of consumers that any lawsuits be based on provable facts, not junk science.

Kudos to the South Carolina Supreme Court for setting an excellent example for other courts in the Ford case and requiring litigation to be based on real science performed by real experts.

New Report Reveals Massive Influence Of Trial Lawyers In Washington D.C. Just As Their Lobbyists Warn President Obama Not To Support Tort Reform

An important new report recently released by the Manhattan Institute shines a bright spotlight on the tidal wave of campaign contributions flowing from personal injury lawyers to members of Congress. Get your free copy of the report here.

According to the Manhattan Institute, the amount of money being poured into the leadership of the U.S. Senate by personal injury lawyers now dwarfs contributions by all other industries. As evidence, the Manhattan Institute reveals that four of the top seven political donors to Majority Leader Harry Reid are plaintiff law firms.

It wouldn’t take a cynic to come to the conclusion that this financial relationship does not bode well for those who support efforts in Congress aimed at eliminating lawsuit abuse. But now, the story is getting even more interesting, and the stakes are as high as ever.

Yesterday, a headline in The Hill, a daily newspaper that covers Congress, declared: Trial Lawyers to Obama: Don’t deal on tort reform in healthcare negotiations. See full article here. Although the President has suggested in the past that there might be some kind of reform he’d support to eliminate meritless lawsuits against doctors, reformers have been waiting for him to support anything they consider meaningful.

The Manhattan Institute study and yesterday’s article in The Hill focus on trial lawyer influence in the nation’s capitol, but the decisions being made in Washington D.C. also have a huge impact on what is likely to happen in the states when it comes to medical liability reform.

When the Senate finally mustered enough votes to approve a heath care reform bill last December, the “tort reform” section in the bill that created demonstration projects in the states was considered a “gift” to trial lawyers. It didn’t do anything to encourage states to enact proposals to eliminate lawsuit abuse. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow, Walter Olson, said all it did was “provide cover to lawmakers who feel they need to tell voters they did something on the tort reform front while guaranteeing that it won’t amount to anything that would bother the trial bar.”

Will President Obama’s recent statements finally move reform efforts forward? If so, he’ll need to convince Congress to encourage the states to approve reforms that actually bother the trial bar.

The Devilish Truth About Judicial Hellholes

Judicial Hellholes 2009

Judicial Hellholes 2009

What the heck is a judicial hellhole?

Well, it’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.  For those who have been sued in one of these jurisdictions, it can surely seem like hell on earth.

But for the “sewers” (of course, it might be more grammatically correct to say “suer” or something like that, but I always loved it when radio legend Paul Harvey called a misguided plaintiff by that name), judicial hellholes are nothing short of heavenly.  They are a “magical” jurisdiction where a plaintiff lawyer with a weak case – or even no case — can strike it rich simply because an enabling judge allows them to abuse the law to extort money from someone with deep pockets.

But don’t take my word for it.  Listen to how one of the most high-profile personal injury lawyers in U.S. history has described these locations:

“What I call the ‘magic jurisdiction,’ [is] where the judiciary is elected with verdict money.  The trial lawyers have established relationships with the judges that are elected; they’re State Court judges; they’re popul[ists]. They’ve got large populations of voters who are in on the deal, they’re getting their [piece] in many cases.  And so, it’s a political force in their jurisdiction, and it’s almost impossible to get a fair trial if you’re a defendant in some of these places. The plaintiff lawyer walks in there and writes the number on the blackboard, and the first juror meets the last one coming out the door with that amount of money. . . . These cases are not won in the courtroom.  They’re won on the back roads long before the case goes to trial. Any lawyer fresh out of law school can walk in there and win the case, so it doesn’t matter what the evidence or law is.”

That was Richard “Dickie” Scruggs speaking.  He’s aptly described in the 8th Annual “Judicial Hellholes” report that was recently released by the American Tort Reform Foundation as “a legendary Mississippi trial lawyer who built an empire of influence suing tobacco companies, HMOs and asbestos-related companies, but who has since been disbarred and sentenced to federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy in an attempt to bribe a judge.

Yes, there is some justice in the world, even though “Dickie” might not agree.

If you haven’t read the latest edition of ATRA’s excellent report on America’s worst court systems, I highly recommend it.  This is not your typical, dry academic report prepared by a lawyer who’s only written legal briefs that judges have to read because they’re paid to do so.  No, it’s actually riveting reading that can be as fascinating as a John Grisham novel at times.

As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction.  This report proves that adage and paves the way for a greater awareness of how the scales of justice have been tipped against the good guys in too many parts of our country.

Read all about it at: http://www.atra.org/reports/hellholes/

Making It Easier For Charities To Help The Poor

PiggyBankDuring the holiday season, I think we all listen a little more closely to the appeals from charities that fill the airwaves.  That why I’ve been using my last few weekly radio commentaries to reveal how lawsuit abuse has had a negative impact on so many humanitarian groups — even when they’ve done nothing wrong.

One such group is a Florida nonprofit organization called “Love Thy Neighbor” that has provided meals to the homeless for years.   One day, right out of the blue, the founder of the group was served with a lawsuit.  The reason: a jewelry business in another state named Love Your Neighbor claimed its potential customers might be confused if the charity continued to operate with the similar sounding name.

You heard that right…Love Your Neighbor was suing Love Thy Neighbor.

The charity was forced to defend itself during months of litigation.  Fortunately, the charity eventually won, yet it was anything but a “heavenly” ending.  The founder of the charity told me he could have provided more than 40,000 meals to the homeless with the money he spent on lawyers.

This is ridiculous! It’s hard enough for charities to raise money to help the disadvantaged.  The last thing we, as a society, should be doing is piling lawsuit abuse costs on them, too.  Redistribution at its worst!  This is Robin Hood in reverse – taking from the “have-nots” and handing over to the “haves.”

I discovered this lawsuit when reading through a little-known weekly legal publication.  It’s the kind of newspaper that only lawyers read, and I’m willing to bet I’m the only non-lawyer around who reads it.  However, the reason I force myself to read through the seemingly endless pages of lawsuits is because there are many tragic stories that will never make it to the mainstream media if we don’t help bring them to their attention.

We eventually made a front-page story out of this tragic case, and I was hopeful that the attention would help the charity retain some no-cost, or low-cost, legal help.  A kind-hearted lawyer finally did come to the aid of the soup kitchen, but as I mentioned above, even with the reduced rates he and his firm charged, the legal bills still added up to quite a burden.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more stories like this, and I will share them in the days and weeks ahead.

This holiday season, let’s all resolve to push for changes in our civil justice system that protect charities from this kind of travesty – especially in this economy!