02.15.05 - AUSTIN, Texas -- Sometimes the ironic timing of events in our public life is so striking as to cause one to wonder if the Great Scriptwriter in the Sky isn't trying to make a point. Thus, the word that the U.S. Senate voted for tort deform last week came just a few days after the news that seven executives of W.R. Grace and Co. were indicted on criminal charges for knowingly exposing their workers and the public to asbestos ore.
Hundreds of miners, their family members and townsfolk in Libby, Mont., have died, and at least 1,200 more are sick from breathing the air polluted by the mine. Since the ore was shipped all over the country and was used as insulation in millions of homes, the total health effects are incalculable. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer deserves credit for bringing Grace to public attention with a series back in 1999.
The executives and the company were indicted on 10 counts of conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud.
W.R. Grace & Co. "categorically denies any criminal wrongdoing," said a spokesman.
Against this timely reminder of what the tort system is designed to deter or punish, the Senate voted for the "Class Action Fairness Act" (love those cute names they keep giving rotten bills) 72 to 26. There is no "flood of frivolous lawsuits" -- in fact, tort claims are declining and only 2 percent of injured people ever sue for compensation to begin with.
Public Citizen did a study showing that corporations themselves file four times as many lawsuits as do individuals, and they are penalized much more often by judges for pursuing frivolous litigation. "Corporations think America is too litigious only when they are on the receiving end of a lawsuit," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "But when they feel aggrieved, businesses are far more likely to take their beef to court than are consumers."
The administration came up with a weird fix for this nonexistent problem (so reminiscent of nonexistent WMDs, the "crisis" in Social Security and other non-problems): It severely limited the right of individuals to file class-action suits against corporations by moving such cases from state courts to federal courts.
This abominable bill was also much-sought by Republicans for nasty political reasons, which makes their rhetoric about justice all the more nauseating. It's a big win for the insurance industry and for big business, both heavy donors to Republicans. It also strips potential cases from trial lawyers, a group notoriously given to supporting the Democrats. How clever of Karl Rove.
Frankly, I think both the trial lawyers and big business can take care of themselves -- it's the rest of us I worry about.
Run! The Sky Is Falling: Republican Tort "Reform" January 11, 2005
Malpractice Misconduct, June 22, 2004
Texas Passes 'Polluters and Predators Protection Act', September 17, 2003