Opinion: Editorials

Editorial: What America's trial lawyers want from Santa

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Opinion,Editorial

Sometimes, you've got to spend money to make money. For the American Association for Justice, the largest trial lawyers organization in the country, it costs a lot to keep getting the gift that keeps on giving.

The AAJ increased its federal lobbying expenditures by 42 percent -- from $810,000 to $1.15 million -- between the second and third quarter of 2012. Its Christmas list includes anything that opens up or helps keep open opportunities for its members and other plaintiffs' lawyers to score enormous contingency fees from settlements or court judgments.

Most of the AAJ's lobbying priorities this year have been defensive actions against laws that would crack down on jackpot settlements. For instance, the AAJ wants Congress to kill the SHIELD Act, which "ensures that American tech companies can continue to create jobs, rather than waste resources on fending off frivolous lawsuits," according to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. DeFazio's office explains that companies "buy patents solely to sue the American tech start-ups that created the products." To limit such lawsuits, the SHIELD Act would allow courts to require the loser to pay for the winner's costs and legal fees. Naturally, the AAJ doesn't like this idea.

The AAJ also reported lobbying against the Domestic Fuels Protection Act, which would provide legal protection to fuel producers who were forced under federal law to add potentially damaging or dangerous additives to their fuel, including ethanol and MTBE. "This is Big Oil's dream bill to avoid accountability," the AAJ said of the law.

Trial lawyers fought the HEALTH Act especially hard this year. "This bill aims to take away the legal rights of injured patients, removing any incentives to improve patient safety," the AAJ says on its website. The bill would limit compensation for noneconomic damages -- for instance, for emotional distress or severe pain -- and punitive damages in medical malpractice lawsuits in order to lower health care costs. Smaller punitive and noneconomic awards mean less money for trial lawyers.

The AAJ also leaned on lawmakers to block the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency, or FACT, Act, which is designed to prevent lawyers and their clients from double-dipping into asbestos bankruptcy trusts to get more payouts than they deserve. "This bill is a one-sided attempt to hurt asbestos victims by allowing the asbestos industry to delay and deny accountability so victims die before they are able to receive justice," the AAJ said in a statement when the House Judiciary Committee voted to pass the bill.

The AAJ also lobbied to ensure that the Cybersecurity Act would not stop it from suing companies that share people's private information with other companies or the government (the bill was designed to encourage such information-sharing to fight cyber-attacks). The bill ultimately failed.

The AAJ defends its self-interested agenda by pointing to the right of legitimately harmed clients to sue. And that right should not be abridged. But the AAJ has shown a historical willingness to lobby in defense of many systemic abuses in which trial lawyers engage. This should shade the way in which Americans view the group's agenda, because all American consumers and patients lose when abusive lawsuits generate big paydays.

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