Recent attempts to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to erect liability shields for corporations serve as a stark reminder that big business and the insurance industry will use any excuse to enact measures that will slam the courthouse door in the face of people who have been injured or killed as a result of corporate negligence.
With that in mind, I thought I would use this week’s column to remind everyone that the civil justice system and the trial attorneys who use it have prevented a nearly incalculable number of death and injuries in the United States.
Yes, I realize that statement runs counter to the “frivolous” tag that’s often used to disparage my profession, but the truth is lawsuits filed on behalf of injury victims and their families have forced companies to make thousands of dangerous products safer or remove them from the marketplace altogether.
If you don’t want to take my word for it — here’s what former U.S. Rep. Harry Waxman, one of the nation’s foremost consumer advocates, said as he fought to beat back tort reform: “Damage suits advance public health. Product liability lawsuits help to uncover information that can lead to safer products. Material produced in litigation can help the public and the FDA to identify problems with particular drugs and can add to physicians’ and public understanding of the risks of the products and flaws in the regulatory system.”
The things made better or banned as a result of suits proves the point. The list includes Corvairs, Pintos and other vehicles with defects that caused them to explode or roll over in accidents; tires that came apart at high speed; faulty pacemakers, medical devices and prescription drugs; asbestos and other lethal chemicals; toys and cribs; and airliners with design flaws that caused them to plummet to Earth. You can check out a more extensive, detailed and shocking list of dangerous products at takejusticeback.com.
Along with demonstrating the essential role trial lawyers play in making the world a safer place, this discussion raises very serious questions: How does a faulty product get to and stay on the market in the first place? Why, in so many instances, do lots of people have to die or be seriously injured before definitive action is taken to protect the public?
In far too many cases, the answer is disturbingly simple: money. Time and time again, as evidence offered by trial lawyers in wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits shows, large corporations knowingly sell products, use substances or engage in practices that they know are dangerous, even lethal. They either calculate the probable cost of litigation and add that cost to the price of the product — a calculation both General Motors and Ford used when they decided to continue selling automobiles that company officials knew were not crash worthy — or they hire lobbyists or scientific “experts” to deflect regulations or refute studies conducted by reputable researchers.
As history demonstrates, the civil justice system is the one force that consistently blunts corporate greed and prevents the damage it can cause — something we all should remember whenever it’s attacked.
— Attorney David Betras, a senior partner at Betras, Kopp & Harshman LLC., directs the firm’s non-litigation activities and practices criminal defense law in both the state and federal courts. He has practiced law for 35 years. Have a legal question you'd like answered here? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.