Recent headlines depict just a few examples of American citizens unknowingly put in harm’s way, seriously injured or killed due to defective products and unsafe food: “Death toll from GM ignition switches rises to 42,” “Takata airbag victims looked like they had been shot or stabbed,” and “Packaged caramel apples linked to five deaths, CDC says.”
When the first lines of defense fail to protect the safety of consumers, only our civil justice system can hold negligent corporations accountable.
Unfortunately, our right to have our day in court is under constant attack by those same corporations and the front groups and phony “think tanks” they fund. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce – a behemoth that caters to huge multinational corporations and not to be mistaken for your local chamber of commerce that supports small businesses – and such allies as the American Tort Reform Association are on a mission to take away your constitutionally protected rights. Every year they spend millions of dollars on slick propaganda campaigns that put the pursuit of profits above Americans’ health and safety.
Once the negative headlines fade away, we can be certain these groups and their high-powered lobbyists will renew their efforts to press elected officials into granting them immunity from the consequences of their own wrongdoing. Tobacco, big oil, pharmaceutical, and insurance companies have invested heavily in organizations, such as the U.S. Chamber and ATRA, that specialize in sowing confusion and demonizing our civil justice system.
These big-money special interests try to dismiss seriously injured individuals who seek justice in court as greedy and to blame for the often grievous harms they have suffered. But the fact is that very few Americans ever file lawsuits. In Illinois, more than 70 percent of court actions are initiated by businesses suing other businesses or individuals for money. Since 2007, the number of all civil cases in Illinois courts is down 26 percent.
Big business pretend concern about so-called “frivolous lawsuits” but do not truly fear them; they know our justice system screens out the very few suits that are without merit long before they get to trial. What actually worries them are meritorious lawsuits – actions brought by citizens against industries producing dangerous products, putting reckless truck drivers on the roads, polluting our air and water, swindling their employees to pad their profits, or otherwise acting irresponsibly. They are determined to shut down the ability of individuals to seek justice from the courts precisely because our legal system serves as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct.
We must speak up and push back by promoting public understanding of – and respect for – our civil justice system. It exists to protect the constitutional rights of citizens and to hold those who harm them responsible, whether the wrongdoer be another person or a large corporation. The courts our tax dollars fund are a crucial means for enhancing safety and, ultimately, effecting positive change that saves lives.
The next time you hear cries of “tort reform” from the usual suspects, remember it’s profits, not principles that lie behind them.
John D. Cooney is the president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and a partner at Cooney & Conway in Chicago.