Chamber of Commerce spends millions trying to take away citizen’s right to a jury trial

Thomas J. Donohue, the head of the US Chamber of Commerce congratulated a group of executives, lobbyists and insurance lawyers to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.  But it is still too early to declare an end to the so-called tort wars, a decades-old propaganda movement to protect coporations and the profits of the insurance companies.  Corporate interests have won several potent victories, but trial lawyers continue to try to undo legislation restricting litigation and are pursuing new strategies of their own.

In state courts, where most civil litigation plays out, the number of suits involving auto accidents, allegations of medical malpractice and the like fell steadily from 1995 to 2005, according to the National Center for State Courts. The Chamber of Commerce says the number of megaverdicts for more than $100 million dropped to 2 last year, from 27 in 2000.

The chief executive of the American Association for Justice, Jon Haber, is skeptical of the results of spending by the Chamber of Commerce and its members to hobble lawsuits. And he defends the new name of his organization as reflecting what it does, rather than who its members are.  “The chamber’s political portfolio looks a lot like the portfolio of many Wall Street banks these days — a large number of bad bets that did not pay off but cost their members an awful lot of money,” Mr. Haber said.

He can rattle off recent victories for trial lawyers including voters in Washington State, for example, last year approved a bill that allows people to collect triple damages if an insurer unreasonably denies a claim.

In Colorado, an initiative to limit lawyers’ fees was answered with a barrage of proposals that would limit executive compensation, cap real estate sales commissions and raise the maximum amount of damages payable as a result of shoddy construction, among other things. All the initiatives were eventually withdrawn.

At the federal level, trial lawyers are pushing for a law that would make it easier for consumers to sue instead of having to submit to binding arbitration, as many contracts — for credit cards, for example — now require. The trial lawyers are also trying to make it harder for defendants to keep legal proceedings secret. “There are a number of things that are very much pro-civil justice that are starting to work through Congress,” Mr. Haber said.

The fight to change tort laws has developed into a big business in itself, with plenty of people invested in keeping the battle going.   Officials at the Institute for Legal Reform, the chamber unit, would not specify how much it spends annually on media and publicity campaigns, except to say it’s in the millions. And many organizations, nationally and in the states, lobby on both sides.

But the chamber itself, which represents millions of businesses of all sizes, is the biggest spender on the lobbying. In 2006, it spent $72.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group that tracks money in politics.

Anti-consumer groups came up with a multipronged propaganda strategy, involving advertising aimed at voters picking judges and continued lobbying of lawmakers. This “demonstration project” was successful enough that the Institute for Legal Reform has expanded it over the years. At the same time, businesses have become more active in state supreme court judicial campaigns and, in the 2006 election cycle, gave twice as much as lawyers did, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

To help deliver a pro-business message, advocates have hit upon a ranking system. One list ranks “judicial hellholes,” as compiled by the American Tort Reform Association, and another identifies those states deemed by corporate general counsels to be most and least friendly to businesses. (That list comes from the Chamber of Commerce.)

In Mississippi, which received the worst ranking on the chamber’s list, advocates of limits on lawsuits made a special effort. In 2002 and 2004, state lawmakers passed legislation that, among other things, capped how much plaintiffs could recover in punitive damages and in noneconomic damages — compensation for pain and suffering, for example.

But Lance L. Stevens, a Mississippi lawyer and former president of the state’s association of trial lawyers, said that even after the changes to the tort laws, the state has moved up in the ranking by only a few spots. General counsels at big corporations are not critical of Mississippi because of its legal system, he said. “It is the corporate lawyers for the Fortune 500 companies expressing their general disgust for Mississippi and their mistaken belief that we are culturally retarded.”

Corporate executives say they want limits on noneconomic damages in order to reduce unpredictability in jury verdicts. But the caps hurt the very people who most need help — low-income people who sustain injuries, Mr. Stevens said. People who earn a lot of money can claim significant lost income as part of their injury. The unemployed, children, the elderly or anyone else with little earning potential stands to recover less for the same injury than someone in the work force.