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Every year a “consulting firm” publishes its calculations of the cost of the civil justice system. And, every year the numbers get wilder and wilder. One day they may exceed the Gross National Product. Attorney Bruce Brothers, from Bend, Oregon and a Bulletin guest columnist, sets the record straight.

Courts hold corporations accountable

The Bulletin recently published an In My View article by John Merchant, described as “chairman of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.” The column contained a number of what the columnist described as “disturbing facts” relating to the expense of the justice system, citing figures from the “consulting firm” of Tillinghast, Powers & Perrin.

The guest column and the figures cited were so patently absurd that I determined to look into the credentials of that firm and the author. I found that John Merchant and his CALA group is supported by large corporate donors, including tobacco, insurance, oil and gas, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, medical associations and auto manufacturers.

The Tillinghast study relied upon by CALA has been widely discredited by many responsible journalists. Business Week called it a “wild exaggeration” in that the numbers cited as the cost of lawsuits include the entire cost of the insurance industry, including the multimillion-dollar salaries of insurance company CEOs. (One of those CEOs makes $29 million a year.)

Congressional Quarterly called the conclusions of this study “sketchy at best.” It noted that the so-called consulting firm works for the insurance industry and that the numbers generated by Tillinghast include claims that never involved the courts or lawyers, such as property damage claims from auto collisions. The Wall Street Journal observed that the study includes payments that don’t involve the legal system at all.

The fact is that Tillinghast is simply another mouthpiece of big corporations intent on evading responsibility for negligence in order to further boost their bottom line. The big corporations have spent millions of dollars over several decades to limit the right of individuals to get justice in our courts. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate the only thing left holding them accountable – the civil justice system, often the last resort for many Americans. If the corporations can just get rid of the court system, they can do exactly as they please.

Though for the last 25 years I have practiced here in Bend, I have observed firsthand the abuses of large corporations and have had a hand in rectifying some of them. Here are just some of the cases I have handled that have protected Oregonians against abuses that easily occur, and would continue to occur, if corporations succeed in dismantling the justice system:

* A young child recovered damages after he was poisoned by a lead toy from a vending machine. That case led the entire industry to change its testing methodology on imported toys.

* A nurse who was exposed to acid in a sterilizing machine held a company accountable for that harm and caused the company to redesign the machine to minimize the threat of injury to medical workers.

* The tire industry stopped installing studded tires only on the front wheels of front-wheel drive vehicles, a practice that made vehicles unsafe.

* After an individual received an electric shock and was paralyzed while using an aluminum pruning pole, the manufacturer – pressed by legal action – began marketing only fiberglass poles.

These are but a few of the changes that a small-town lawyer in Bend was able to make. Because those injured people could hold negligent companies accountable, they recovered medical and living expenses and also caused those companies to adopt safer practices to protect us all. I am confident that none of those changes would have occurred were it not for the civil justice system.

Through the courts, other plaintiffs’ lawyers have changed dangerous corporate practices, such as selling SUVs and other vehicles that unexpectedly roll over or catch fire. Flammable pajamas have been taken off the market and dangerous drugs removed from the marketplace.

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