Gary M. Paul is president of the American Association for Justice, formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. He wrote this opinion piece for Roll Call.
On Wednesday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) addressed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Institute for Legal Reform — the leading front group for multinational corporations seeking to limit Americans’ access to the courts.
And in its typical self-serving fashion, ILR has seized on the hardships of millions of unemployed Americans, claiming that this country needs “jobs, not lawsuits,” despite no actual evidence to bolster its nonsensical claims.
ILR’s board members run the gamut of industries — from chemical makers and drug companies to Wall Street banks. And they have more in common than just their commitment to closing the courthouse door on injured Americans. The corporations that finance ILR have long, storied histories of using the courts for their own agendas — to gain the upper hand against their competitors, customers and even each other.
One ILR board member, Caterpillar Inc., sued the Walt Disney Co. because it felt the depiction of bulldozers in the straight-to-video movie “George of the Jungle 2” was overly villainous. FedEx Corp., another stalwart board member, took a “stand for justice” by suing a man for making a chair out of FedEx boxes. Johnson & Johnson used the civil justice system to take on a most unlikely foe — the Red Cross.
These corporations certainly have the right to seek justice through the legal system. What makes their actions shameful is that they are members of ILR’s board for the sole purpose of denying American workers and consumers that very same right. This ultimate hypocrisy not only undermines that ridiculous jobs argument but also highlights their real motivations: obtaining immunity when they injure or kill American workers and consumers.
Every company that holds a seat on ILR’s board or participates as a member stands to gain monetarily from the organization’s agenda of blocking the courthouse doors. For instance, in return for being an ILR board member, Honeywell International has received lobbying and public relations help when its negligence has been uncovered. Days after an Illinois jury delivered a multimillion-dollar verdict against Honeywell for conspiring to hide the dangers of asbestos, the Madison County Record, an Illinois-based propaganda-as-news outlet fully owned by ILR, featured an opinion piece headlined, “McLean County Continues Inching Closer to Becoming a ‘Judicial Hellhole.’”
America’s civil justice system gives people a fair chance to hold wrongdoers accountable. The civil justice system has uncovered countless examples of corporate negligence, and as a result, things we take for granted — whether it is cars, medicines or the workplace — are all safer. Our legal system also serves as a powerful deterrent, making corporations think twice before putting profits ahead of people. Thousands of lives are saved because the civil justice system gives corporations the needed incentive to make better products, instead of ones that are cheaper but more dangerous.
When faced with abusive corporate practices, the courts are often the last resort for everyday Americans to seek justice. ILR board members know a jury verdict is one of the few things they cannot buy and control, but with ILR’s assistance, they have found a willing partner to simply whine to Congress for more immunity instead.
We cannot allow self-serving corporations — let alone their front groups — to just slap a “jobs creation” sticker on legislation that has absolutely nothing to do with jobs, in order to finally check off items on their wish list. There is a difference between providing incentives to employers to hire more workers and giving handouts to corporations that simply want to skirt the law and avoid accountability. While we doubt the chamber will ever learn the difference, we certainly hope lawmakers will.