Friday, December 17, 2004

Torts, Class Actions and Scapegoating 

Evan Schaeffer over at Notes from the (Legal) Underground posted yesterday on the latest round of class action bashing, and provides plenty of links for more information on the role of class action and the motives of tort reformers.

I have this to add, a note particularly for movie goers. Big screen depictions related to class action and other large tort cases (some true, some fictional) and the professionals behind them:

Erin Brockovich - Julia Roberts depicts then law firm file clerk Erin Brockovich, whose investigation led to the successful suit against Pacific Gas and Electric which eventually settled and got $333 million for the 600+ residents of a town exposed to and suffering from Chromium 6 that was in the groundwater because of actions at PG&E's compressor station.

A Civil Action - John Travolta portrays Boston area attorney Jan Schlictman, who represented families in Woburn, MA, whose family members (mostly children) had become sick and/or died of leukemia after one of the town's drinking water supplies had become contaminated by a number of toxic chemicals.

The Insider - Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco company executive who gave an interview to 60 Minutes (which was shelved) and later testified in state-based actions against the tobacco companies. His former employer filed suit against Dr. Wigand for his disclosures, but that case was dropped as part of the eventual settlement between the tobacco industry and the 40 states which were suing the industry for smoking-related health costs.

Class Action (1991)- Gene Hackman portrays the lead attorney in a class action suit against an automobile manufacturer whose faulty design led to severe injuries (think Pinto), and who finds himself facing his daughter (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), attorney for the defense.

Class Action (2005) - This film will be released next year, but looks like it has potential. It's described by IMDB as "A fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States -- Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, where a woman who endured a range of abuse while working as a miner filed and won the landmark 1984 lawsuit." Among the cast members are Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek and Charlize Theron. Couldn't they line up any more Academy Award winners than just these three?

For every tale of a tort action that is extreme (hello, recent Wal-Mart filing?), there are any number of cases in which the class action is the best way for a large number of plaintiffs, each of whom don't have much in the way of personal resources, to take on a large corporation which they claim has caused them damage in some way. Sometimes the goal is funding to pay for the damage or the health-related costs of the injury, sometimes the goal is just to get to the truth.

There doesn't seem to be any widespread movement to cap the amount corporations can spend on their own efforts to keep the truth from getting out there. Why this big push to cap the financial penalties (in the form of damages awarded) imposed on those corporations who have caused real damages to real people, when the truth of their actions is proven?

I can hear some thoughts out there - "McDonald's coffee case." Take a closer look. And by the way, the judicial system worked its magic when on appeal the award was lowered to $480,000, a number probably much more reasonable-sounding than the original award. That's how the system works. Cases without merit either don't make it past the pleadings, are settled, dropped, or lose. Cases that have unusual outcomes are often brought back in line with expectations on appeal.

But what about that case in which the defendant caused severe damages to large numbers of people, and acted with reckless disregard for the consequences? How will advance legislation placing an arbitrary and very low cap on their liability encourage them not to continue these actions in the future?

And lastly, what are you going to do if you suffer an injury, and the corporation that was the apparent cause of that injury has been completely unwilling to acknowledge or assist you in any way? My guess is that you'll start asking around for the name of a good lawyer.

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Posted by Beth Henderson at 8:51 AM