Lawyer-Bashing Masks Real Ill; Overhaul Insurance Industry

The following article, written by Leonard A. Sloane, Esquire, as guest columnist appeared in the February 4, 1990, edition of the Sunday Local News, West Chester, Pennsylvania.

By Leonard A. Sloane

Trial lawyer bashing is becoming a popular sport these days.  Editorial writers and other critics have made a case that the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association is responsible for blocking meaningful automobile and product liability insurance reform in the state.  We’ve been lampooned with virtually every nasty epithet in the book.

Now it’s our turn to respond.  The response, though, comes not from some distant voices across the state. For the record, I’m a neighbor, an active member of the Chester County community, a resident of West Goshen Township, a past president of the West Goshen Lions Club, a lawyer with offices in both Chester and Delaware Counties.

And I write you as a neighbor and president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association, a professional organization with a membership of some 4,200 men and women, representing consumers across the state.

Our critics are fond of nailing us with the words, “special interest” group.  What they fail to mention is that we’re the only “special interest” group that represents an important, special constituency: innocent victims of negligent or reckless conduct, victims of drunken drivers or manufacturers of unsafe and defective products.

Would anyone impugn the integrity of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the NAACP, the American Association of Retired Persons or Pennsylvania Citizen Action, the state’s largest consumer group?

Yet, when it comes to auto insurance reform, all these organizations stand with us.

Also, in our corner against loosening restrictions on product liability legislation are at least two other “special interest” groups the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club.

All these consumer groups want the same thing, the protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights for all citizens—rich, poor, black, white, union, non-union, young and old.

They as we want to retain the right to have their day in a court of law when hurt by someone else’s reckless conduct.

We would respectfully suggest that if our critics want to go on a witch hunt for special interest groups there are a few which deserve scrutiny.

One is the insurance industry. Here is a special interest group that collects your money and promises to return it when you’re injured. Yet they will spend thousands of dollars to keep you from recovering any of it. And they’ll spend millions to deceive you into believing there is an insurance crisis while refusing to open their books to public scrutiny. They want to change the tort laws to free themselves of any obligation to return a dime on billions in collected premiums.

Another special interest group is the tobacco industry joining with other manufacturers to lobby the Pennsylvania General Assembly for tort reform. They want restrictions on the public’s right to sue for defective products.

But what has been the lesson of history? The more conservative, the more restrictive the tort law, the more people are injured. When profit becomes the motive, individual safety falls by the wayside.

No one will forget the Ford Pinto gas tank which exploded on impact because of faulty design. Then there was the Challenger shuttle disaster. In its rush to meet a deadline did Morton Thiokol know its 0-rings were defective? Did it gamble on the lives of a school teacher and six brave astronauts?

As for the tobacco industry, documented evidence has confirmed that this special interest group knew many years ago that cigarettes would cause cancer, lung disease, addiction and death. Yet they withheld this from the public. What – other than profit – was their motive?

And it is the tobacco lobby  joined by other manufacturers  which is seeking passage of House Bill 916 and Senate Bill 816. If passed, this special interest group will have won complete immunity from future claims. Are they fearful that Pennsylvanians speaking through their jury system  will squeeze their profit margins?

Trial lawyers have an absolute coincidence of interest with our large, important and otherwise unrepresented constituency thousands of Pennsylvania consumers who are wrongfully injured in auto accidents or disabled by defective products.

There are those who criticize trial lawyers on the grounds there are too many large lawsuits. Yet the General Accounting Office, an independent, non-biased federal agency, recently issued a report debunking this myth. The study concluded that jury awards and payments are not out of line and that increases in these awards track almost precisely the increase in medical costs.

There are those who attack trial lawyers because we’re viewed as unfriendly to big business. Yet a Rand Corporation study found that it is the threat of product liability lawsuits that constitutes the single most effective deterrent to the manufacture, distribution and sale of unsafe products.
Ralph Nader, perhaps America’s most respected public figure, has called the “insurance crisis” the greatest and cruelest hoax ever played on the American people. Nader tells it like it is. When the insurance industry’s books are opened for the world to see, he predicts, the truth will suddenly be crystal clear—”Insurance reform,” not “tort reform” is what’s needed for a better society.