Trial lawyers, tort reform, and hypocrisy


Geraldine Sealey
July 7, 2004 1:50AM (UTC)

Bush-Cheney '04 is salivating over John Kerry's choice of a trial lawyer as his running mate, but their efforts to paint Edwards as an "ambulance chaser" could end up highlighting George W. Bush's history as a friend of corporate interests at the expense of the little people. Senate Republicans plan to use against John Edwards a "tort reform" bill designed to protect corporations from big-money class action lawsuits. And going after trial lawyers has long been on President Bush's agenda, who suggested on Friday that his support for "tort reform" is somehow about sheltering the little guy:

"We need tort reform in America. Small businesses are threatened by -- if you ask people what affects their confidence in the future, they'll tell you, when they see junk lawsuits or have junk lawsuits filed against them. It threatens their existence, it makes it very difficult for people to plan with confidence. And, let's face it, our society is too litigious. There's too many lawsuits, a lot of them frivolous and junk lawsuits."

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A report from the Center for Justice and Democracy, a non-profit group that opposes "tort reform," showed that as Texas Governor, one of Bush's first acts in 1995 "was to meet with representatives of nine Texas Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) chapters in a salsa factory outside of Austin, after which he declared a legislative 'emergency' on 'frivolous lawsuits.' Over his two terms, Bush signed a series of brutal bills that severely reduced injured consumers' rights to go to court." Then-Gov. Bush signed several laws in Texas protecting corporations -- like Enron, until recently his biggest career donor -- from lawsuits by consumers, such as capping punitive damages, diluting a law meant to penalize businesses that engage in deceptive business practices and prohibiting Texas cities from suing gun makers and sellers.

But CJD has labeled George W. Bush a hypocrite on the tort reform issue for taking advantage of the civil litigation system when it suits him. "However, when it comes to solving problems involving his own family, Bush heads straight to court. In 1999, Bush sued Enterprise Rent-A-Car over a minor fender-bender involving one of his daughters in which no one was hurt. Although his insurance would have covered the repair costs, making a lawsuit unnecessary, Bush sought additional money from Enterprise, which had rented a car to someone with a suspended license. In this case, Bush seemed to understand one of the most important functions of civil lawsuits -- to deter further wrongdoing. The case settled for $2,000 to $2,500."

And guess who else was a major supporter of "tort reform" groups in Texas, according to CJD? Bush's friend, and a beneficiary of Bush's "tort reform" legislation in Texas, Ken Lay of Enron. As for Lay's personal attitude toward "frivolous lawsuits," it seems to closely resemble Bush's. The group Texans for Public Justice says Lay once sued a driver who rear-ended his daughter's car, seeking $10,000 in damages including money for "pain and suffering" and "mental anguish." His daughter did not seek medical care until a week after the accident.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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