President Trump recently announced that he’d like to “scale back the scope of federal regulations to the level it stood in 1960.” By that, he doesn’t mean easing-up red tape for small business loans. He means stripping Americans of public protections that have preserved our health, safety, environment and financial security for decades.
Trump may have an extreme goal, but to be honest, the overall problem is nothing too new. Since the 1980s, strong oversight of dangerous corporate practices has been slowing down in America. What we found back then was fascinating: corporations engaged in illegal behavior that were able to block government oversight sometimes changed because of lawsuits brought by everyday Americans. As a result of lawsuits then and now, auto manufacturers have been forced to make safer or remove from the market untold numbers of dangerous vehicles saving millions of lives. Many machines have been equipped with safety guards. Toxic household chemicals got warning labels. Fabrics used in children’s sleepwear became flame-retardant. Dangerous and sometimes lethal birth control devices were taken off the market. On and on. Civil lawsuits have also forced disclosure of extremely important internal information about dangerous products, unsafe health care, sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination, and financial abuses. You can find explanations of many cases right here.
In the documentary film “Hot Coffee,” George Lakoff, the now-retired Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, said this about people who bring civil lawsuits:
When somebody goes to court, they’re doing something extraordinary that is hidden. To go to court and to sue is not a simple procedure. You have to go through a lot of trouble. It affects your life. You’re going to be attacked in all sorts of ways. Going to court to gain justice is heroic. That idea has to be out there. When you ‘win a case,’ you win it for other people as well as gaining justice for yourself.
The same could be said for the trial attorneys who represent these everyday people. Hero lawyers are everywhere if you care to look. There’s a young Thurgood Marshall portrayed in the new movie “Marshall,” who’s nothing if not heroic. There are the public interest lawyers and state Attorneys General fighting Trump extremism, from the repeal of net neutrality to the dismantling of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There are trial lawyers who fight every day for their clients against insurance companies who refuse to pay legitimate claims, giant companies that cheat their customers or harm families and communities, and unsafe hospitals that kill up to 400,000 Americans each year.
That all said, perhaps some negative views about lawyers are inevitable. As law professor Michael Asimow explained in his article “Bad Lawyers and the Movies,” one problem is that lawyers are usually needed in life’s worst moments, like divorce, probate of a dead parent, disputes with the IRS, bankruptcies, and juvenile crimes. And most relevant for this discussion, they are also needed at the terrible moment when someone is injured and has to sue an insurance company. And then there’s this Catch 22: the public tends to criticize lawyers for doing well what individual clients most value about lawyers – aggressive, skillful representation. (See more about this in the book, Distorting the Law: Politics, Media and the Litigation Crisis by professors William Haltom and Michael McCann.)
But the public perception of trial lawyers and the civil justice system has been damaged for other reasons too – reasons that were not inevitable. Over the last 35 years, a number of industry-sponsored organizations have been created to generate fear, alarm and contempt for trial lawyers and for the constitutional right of injured Americans to use the civil courts. These groups include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, the American Tort Reform Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force, to name just a few (e.g.,here, here, here.) These interests are spending big money and exerting all their influence to change our legal system so that their members - large corporations – can spend less on safety and erase their accountability to the public. It’s pretty simple.
You may not trust big corporations, but I trust them to do one thing – make fatal mistakes, especially due to negligence, recklessness or in some cases, conscious disregard. Trial lawyers and their clients are the last line of defense against this kind of misconduct. We are working full-time to expose unscrupulous attacks on them. Help us fight back.