Opinion: The importance of tort law

  

By Jeannie Brandstetter

Some time after we’ve all awakened from our turkey-induced Thanksgiving naps but a few days before we nestle in for visions of cavorting sugarplums to await St. Nick, a lamentable occasion will occur.

I wish I meant Festivus, the pretend holiday written into an episode of “Seinfeld” during which we’d gather for the “airing of the grievances.” I’m not. 

I’m talking instead about the American Tort Reform Association’s original fake news nugget – its annual Judicial Hellhole Report. Just another kind of pretend, I suppose. 

ATRA is a Washington, D.C.-based group formed in 1986 to represent hundreds of corporations (U.S. and foreign) in their bid to overhaul civil liability laws, aka tort reform. Their report pretends to be an authentic study which lists cities and states where corporations and doctors just can’t get a fair shake in court.

The report is released with much alarmist ballyhoo, then ATRA disciples use it to spur panic among legislators that Missouri is “bad for business.”

The truth is, the entire thing is pure hooey. It’s just part of the continued attack on tort law and the right to a trial by jury. Brought to you by the folks who want it to be cheaper and easier to hurt or even kill Missourians. 

ATRA and its report were discussed on St. Louis “On The Air Legal Roundtable” in January 2017.

“This is the corporate defendants saying they don’t like losing so many cases in places like St. Louis,” said Bill Freivogel, Director of Journalism at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. “The whole thing is just really a very masterful corporate effort to decrease the judgments against them in places like St. Louis.” 

ATRA, said Freivogel, is “totally funded” by corporate defendants. His on-air colleague Mark Smith, Associate Vice Chancellor of Students at Washington University School of Law, chimed in, “It’s just a snappy name they’ve given for ‘people who don’t like to lose.’ But the title ‘rich corporations that don’t like to lose…’ that doesn’t have as much panache.”

But ATRA will no longer tell anyone who its members/financial backers even are. If you visit their website, there’s an “about us” page with a link that says it’ll take you to a sample list of members, but “sorry, that page could not be found.” 

Now that I’ve “aired my grievances” about ATRA and the folks who push their anti-civil justice system agenda, let me tell you about the real folks for whom I’m thankful to work. 

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys is a non-partisan group of 1,342 plaintiff attorneys (a list of whom I routinely offer to journalists) who work daily to protect the rights we are owed as outlined in the Missouri constitution – “that the right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”

It’s important for the well-being of all of us that our elected leaders have a better understanding and appreciation of tort law and trial by jury than to be duped by ATRA and their ilk. After all, a healthy business climate shouldn’t come at the expense of patient, worker or consumer safety.

Tort law not only allows for compensation of victims to be made whole, it means disclosure of the wrongdoing and deterrence of malicious or negligent acts. A jury verdict can be heard around the country or even the world, resulting in a change or halt to unsafe practices.

Tort law – with its roots in English common law – has evolved to level the playing field. It not only allows direct action, but it lets people without resources take on anyone in the world. Any giant corporation, any over-reaching governmental agency.

Tort law has benefits beyond compensating an injured victim. Products are safer, autos are safer, roads are safer, toys are safer, food is safer.

If you’re thinking to yourself about all the frivolous suits filed, I challenge you to name ONE. There are mechanisms in the system (that have always been there) to deal with any case that is non-meritorious. Or to deal with any verdict that’s excessive, or, for that matter, inadequate. 

You’ll notice I said our organization is non-partisan, not impartial. We take sides. We are advocates. And we will never stop saying so. 

One of the remarkable strengths of tort law is that it is direct action. You don’t need to get government approval, you don’t need a permit or authorization. It is started at the behest of an injured plaintiff. In open court.

With an advocate by his side. 

Jeannie Brandstetter is the Director of Communications for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. Given the opportunity, she’ll kindly remind you that journalists and trial attorneys are the reason many of us are alive today.