Legal Spotlight – Litigation

“In America, regardless of your wealth or rank, you have the power to hold corporations, governments or people, more powerful than yourself, accountable for wrongful misconduct. The right to a jury trial is your Seventh Amendment right and it gives you the power to enforce all of your other constitutional rights.If someone tramples on your right to free speech, your right to be free from unlawful search and seizures, your right to exist free from inflicted injury, you are guaranteed a right to a trial by a jury of your peers. Unlike Congress or the State Legislature, no amount of campaign contributions or lobbying efforts can touch a jury. A jury is you. The right to a jury trial is rooted in the Bill of Rights and 49 of the nation’s 50 state constitutions. (Colorado is the exception).Oregon’s state Supreme Court ruled last year that caps on civil damage awards are unconstitutional. But a coalition of insurance-friendly politicians didn’t care about the constitution. They launched an initiative called Ballot Measure 81 to amend their constitution so state politicians could cap all civil damage awards as they saw fit. It was an unconstitutional amendment to the constitution so to speak.Last month, Oregon’s voters said they trusted juries more than they trusted the politicians, and defeated Ballot Measure 81 by a 3 to 1 margin.Six state supreme courts – including Washington – have struck down laws that capped jury awards. But the muscles of big corporations and big governments are forever flexing their might in an attempt to take away your day in court. By eliminating a jury’s ability to determine the appropriate verdict, the concept of an impartial justice system is decimated. Each case is judged the same regardless of the circumstances or conduct. This factory approach to the courts takes the just out of justice. Texas Gov. George Bush is an outspoken advocate for assembly-line justice. He has constructed a portion of his presidential campaign on stripping citizens of their Seventh Amendment rights and the role of juries. Bush promises to limit lawsuits and minimize damage awards so corporate America can get on with the business of the bottom line – just like he’s done as governor. Legal experts say no state has seen the role of juries more crippled during the last decade than in Texas.Less than 1 percent of all criminal and civil cases in Texas ever make it to a jury, according to the Dallas Morning News. Texas also capped its civil damage awards at $200,000 and approved a package of legislation outlawing lawsuits against numerous Texas corporations. These laws are already being challenged. It is true that Texas was the first state in the nation to adopt a Patients’ Bill of Rights with a right-to-sue provision. It’s also true that Bush vetoed the legislation when it crossed his desk in 1995. It’s also true the bill became law in 1997 only after Bush failed to veto it or sign it. It was Bush’s lack of leadership and inaction that caused this bill to become law. This fact, however, has not prevented Bush from adopting full credit for the popular measure.A recently released Texas-based survey of our nation’s trial court judges found most judges think the jury system needs only minor tinkering at best. The survey was conducted by the Dallas Morning News and Southern Methodist University School of Law. The survey also found that 98 percent of the judges said juries do at least a moderately well job in reaching a just and fair verdict. And 96 percent said they agree with jury verdicts most of or all of the time.Seattle’s U.S. Federal Court Judge William Dwyer told the Dallas Morning News he believes the system is working. Those who are asking for wholesale changes in the jury system are usually law professors and insurance executives, he said. They usually haven’t had any real trial experience. They haven’t seen how well it actually works.Reputable legal scholars share Dwyer’s sentiments. Florida State University released a study earlier this year which further debunked all of the hyped hysteria regarding the phantom litigation explosion. Florida’s professors concluded there is an explosion of rhetoric from corporate-funded think tanks like the Manhattan Institute. Florida professors found that insurance companies were hit hard by massive claims from recent disasters of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods in the South – not trial lawyers.Lawsuits here in Washington are down, not up and represent a minuscule percentage of all civil court filings. A total of 11,674 personal injury lawsuits were filed in 1999 – a drop of 616 lawsuits from 1998. This represents a grand total of 4 percent of all civil court filings in Washington.Our court system encourages companies to make decisions which put safety first. Companies who put people before profits will have the edge in the market place. Take away the accountability, there’s no incentive to do the right thing. Ford Motor company thought it would be cheaper to pay burned victims than fix its exploding Pinto gas tanks. Thankfully, in the end, a jury made sure it cost Ford more for putting safety second.Don’t give your power away. Trust yourself, trust juries.Janet Rice is president of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, an organization with more than 3,500 plaintiff attorneys statewide.”