A day to reflect on our civil rights

“I consider the trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1788.

For decade after decade, the tobacco industry had managed to gain federal and state legislators’ acquiescence to spread its cancerous product without any accountability.

Quite frankly, Congress and legislatures were unable to honor their constitutional obligation to “protect the general welfare” because they were hooked on cigarette money.

Until they were hauled before our civil justice system, Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man had managed to evade justice. But they were unable to conquer the common sense and spirit of justice rooted in juries of ordinary citizens.

As America celebrates Law Day on May 1, we should recognize that it was our civil justice system that has finally begun to lift the toxic cloud of tobacco pollution shrouding our state and federal Capitols. Our civil justice system unearthed Big Tobacco’s deceptive practices and is now holding the industry accountable.

But in recent years, corporate PR pros have been trying to persuade Americans that the jury system isn’t really an anchor for democracy after all. Contrary to Thomas Jefferson, the opinion-molders tell us, our civil justice system is just a big dead weight on American enterprise.

Their spin runs something like this: Some woman spills coffee on herself and gets the bright idea to blame McDonald’s, and then an ignorant jury hands her millions. Meanwhile, frivolous lawsuits are driving up medical malpractice rates. Isn’t it about time to pull up that anchor so we can start sailing smoothly toward prosperity again?

Despite its constant repetition, this argument just doesn’t stand up to reality. Take the infamous McDonald’s case. That involved an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck who suffered third-degree burns her inner thighs and genitals — requiring skin grafts– from the 190-degree coffee. McDonald’s had ignored more than 700 complaints over the scalding temperature of its coffee (more than 30 degrees hotter than coffee served at other restaurants) and refused to consider paying Stella for her medical costs. Only at that point did she take the company to court.

Or check out the medical malpractice insurance crisis. If rates are going up, it must mean more people are suing and winning bigger awards, right? Nope, not at all. There has been no recent increase in the frequency or size of awards to account for the rate increases. Medical malpractice costs are actually at an all-time low: 0.55 of 1% of all medical costs, to be precise.

The current malpractice premium crisis afflicting some states reflects the financial manipulations of the for-profit insurance companies, not defects of our civil justice system. Here’s how the malpractice insurance industry operates: if the stock and bond markets are soaring, then the firms price malpractice premiums at below-cost.

But when the insurance companies take a financial bath on their investments, they recover their profits by soaking doctors on premiums. Premiums for all forms of insurance—homeowners, auto, and municipal—are now rising for exactly the same reason.

Unfortunately, many in Congress and state legislatures have failed to study and understand the real roots of the insurance premium spike. Some lawmakers are now turning on the civil justice system itself.

Look at recent proposals in Congress that would weaken our civil justice system.

Caps on medical malpractice awards, thus limiting juries’ decisions.

“Tort reform” to shield powerful industries from accountability.

Limits on class action lawsuits.

Exempting the firearms industry from lawsuits.

The aim of these bills: blocking lawsuits that challenge the misconduct of corporations and negligence of the medical industry. They would shield corporate decisionmakers who quite consciously produced rip-offs of stockholders and electricity consumers, over-priced and sometimes harmful drugs, the tobacco industry’s systematic addiction of young people, and the defective Bridgestone tires, to cite a few examples. No wonder that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay headed up Texans for “tort reform.”

These are very stormy times for democracy as our political system gets swamped by big money from the Enrons and others who buy government favors.

Perhaps more than ever, we need the strong anchor of a vital, vibrant jury system to keep our democracy from being capsized by tidal waves of big-money’s power and influence.