Bill Pryor, the Attorney General of Alabama, warned two years ago
that “the lawsuits filed by state attorneys general against the tobacco
industry threaten America’s entire business community.”

Today, with the tobacco settlement as a precedent and big city mayors
filing lawsuits against the gun industry, Pryor is reiterating his
warning. “This dangerous marriage of tort lawyers and governments must
be severed soon,” he says, “before it further weakens what remains of
limited government, the rule of law, and respect for individual
responsibility in this nation.”

Few of us, says Pryor, fully understood the threat to business when
the first tobacco lawsuits were filed. Few observers saw that trial
lawyers, richly rewarded for providing financial support for tobacco
suits, would have even more incentives as they began their assault on
the gun industry, and then on the alcohol and fast-food industries.

Pryor argues that this “litigation madness” is undermining “the rule
of law and its historic respect for freedom of contract,” i.e., the
makers of 100 percent legal and non-defective products are now being
hauled into court and ordered to pay huge sums in a legal environment
they never envisioned when they began to manufacture their products.

An associated consequence, says Pryor, is the corrosive impact at the
courthouse: “When filing these suits, trial lawyers select judges known
to be susceptible to ignoring legal doctrines. The judges pander to
their trial lawyer friends, who, in turn, contribute generously to
judicial campaigns. The same judges then bask in the media attention
that usually accompanies their ‘landmark’ rulings.” Mayors and other
politicians join in, extolling the virtues of “public interest”
litigation. “Framed as a crusade to protect innocent kids,” Pryor
explains, “the campaign then attracts a host of liberal interest

This shift of “political disputes from legislatures to the
judiciary,” Pryor contends, is jeopardizing the basic tenets of American
government, such as the separation of powers. Rather than applying
existing law to resolve legal disputes, the courts are simply
propagating by judicial fiat what couldn’t fly in the democratic
process. “It’s frightening,” says Pryor, “to read about
the mayor of Miami asserting that ‘this is exactly what courts are there
to do, to fix inequities that you can’t accomplish in the legislature.'”

The mayors, unwilling to take responsibility for their own crime
problems, are playing a “blame game,” Pryor maintains. “As a law
enforcement official, I know crimes are caused by criminals, not by the
gun industry,” he says. “Indeed, by providing good-quality firearms at
reasonable prices to law-abiding citizens and law officers, the gun
industry helps reduce crime. The way to disarm criminals is to enforce
laws that prohibit felons from purchasing firearms and to enhance
penalties for crimes committed with guns.”

In earlier decades, a liberal “blame game” focused on the “root
causes” of crime, i.e., inequality, racism, discrimination, capitalism,
Western culture, the unhappy childhoods of murderers. The result? Crime
rates soared. “Those who paid the highest price for these excursions
into utopian justice were not the judges or the theorists whose notions
the judges reflected,” says Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell,
“but the victims of rape, murder and terrorization by hoodlums.”

It’s the same utopian preoccupation with “fairness” that targets
successful companies with anti-trust suits and targets companies whose
workforces do not statistically mirror the ethnic composition of their
local labor force. Companies can be found guilty of “discrimination,” in
other words, even if no one can find a single job applicant or employee
who was treated unfairly or had different rules or standards applied to
his or her qualifications or work.

Recently, just a few days after Mr. Pryor spoke of lawsuit abuses, an
Alabama jury awarded $581 million to a family who says they were
overcharged $l,224 for two satellite dishes. Barbara Carlisle of rural
Alabama, along with her parents in Greensboro, sued Gulf Coast
Electronics and Whirlpool Financial National Bank, claiming the
companies tried to gouge them for $612 each on the purchase of two
$1,100 satellite dishes sold in 1995 by a door-to-door salesman. Once
the lawsuit was filed, the companies waived payment on the amount that
was disputed. Still, the jury awarded Ms. Carlisle and her parents
$975,000 for their alleged “mental anguish” plus an additional $580
million in punitive damages.

“Alabama businesses can’t survive in this kind of environment,”
responded Ragan Ingram, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Steven Windom. “That’s a
lot of money. If there was a prime indication that Alabama needs to
address the tort reform issue, this is it.” A few years earlier, it was
another Alabama jury that awarded $4 million to a doctor who didn’t like
how the paint had been touched
up on his new BMW.

Ingram could have added that it’s all of us, as consumers and
workers, who eventually pay the price for these out-of-control damage
awards, and for the demonizing of industry for the criminal misuse of
their products. Each day, we pay the price with lower investment, less
innovation, slower economic growth, higher prices, fewer jobs, and
smaller paychecks. With prices, for instance, each American, on average,
is now paying $1,200 a year for sky-high jury awards, nearly $5,000 per
family, according to a recent study by the National Federation of
Independent Business.

The bottom line? “The free market and the cause of human liberty,”
says Pryor, “cannot survive much more of this litigation madness.”

Ralph R. Reiland, Associate Professor of
Economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh, is co-author with
Sarah J. McCarthy of the new book, “Mom and Pop vs. the Dreambusters:
The Small Business Revolt Against Big Government,” available at
McGrawHill (phone 1-800-262-4729, ISBN# 0072347740).

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