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Unjust Lawsuits Claiming Legal Reform Thwart Rights of Americans in Personal Injury Cases

January 4, 2012

The American Association for Justice (AAJ) recently published a short pamphlet catchily titled Do As I Say, Not As I Sue, an attack on the hypocrisy of the United States Chamber of Commerce, that shadowy pro-corporate lobbying group mentioned a few posts ago in reference to the documentary Hot Coffee. Despite its official-sounding name, the Chamber has nothing to do with the United States government. Having said that, the Chamber still exerts serious influence on campaigns and legislation through its lobbying.

The best summary of the pamphlet comes from the text itself: “On one hand, the Chamber spends an unrivaled amount of money lobbying to restrict access to the courts for everyday Americans. On the other, it files copious lawsuits and brief in defense of the likes of AIG, Wal-Mart, Firestone and a slew of pharmaceutical and insurance companies. Every company that holds a seat on ILR’s board or participates as a member stands to gain monetarily from the organization’s agenda of blocking the courthouse doors…the corporations that participate in the Institute for Legal Reform are actively trying to deny those same rights to their own customers.”

The pamphlet lists 10 companies, all of whom serve of the board of the Institute for Legal Reform (itself a subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce) that the AAJ identifies as hypocrites: each company has filed lawsuits that any reasonable person would identify as “frivolous.” The problem is that their sole mission is to block everyday citizens from accessing the courts with valid suits against negligent companies. The corporations on the list are mostly household names: Honeywell, FedEx, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and State Farm.

For years, Honeywell manufactured defective Zylon bulletproof vests and sold them to U.S. law enforcement agencies and even politicians like former President George W. Bush. When the U.S. Department of Justice sued the company, Honeywell countersued, alleging the government mishandled the matter. When Honeywell was hit with a multi-million dollar verdict in Illinois this year for concealing the dangers of asbestos and requiring workers to be exposed to it, the ILR responded four days later in the press, characterizing Illinois as a “troubling…hostile litigation environment.” The AJA accuses the ILR of posing as a “seemingly unbiased surrogate” and deliberately misleading the public.

The writers of the pamphlet highlight similar hypocrisy at Caterpillar, which sued the Walt Disney Company for its portrayal of power diggers in the 2003 direct-to-video animated movieGeorge of the Jungle 2. They claimed the machinery was characterized as being overly villainous. Justly, a judge in Illinois threw out the case as being without merit (in other words, “frivolous”). This from the company that has spent more than $25 million in court trying to avoid payouts to employees who contracted mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos in Caterpillar machine parts (which they used in 200 different components until as recently as 2001).

Similarly, in 2009 State Farm sued a woman who was guilty only of sharing the same name as the intended defendant in the lawsuit. A woman named Stacy Calderon was in a car accident, but the insurance company decided to take on a woman with the same name who lived hours away and was clearly not involved in the crash. Even after the California Department of Motor Vehicles had realized the simple clerical error, State Farm pursued the wrong woman in court, leaving her with no choice but to spend thousands of dollars on legal defense. Even after they admitted in the press they had made a mistake, they pressed forward with the litigation.

These are but three examples from American Association for Justice’s pamphlet, but their themes are all the same: corporations clearly think they deserve access to the civil justice system at the expense of the average citizen. Check out the full version for dozens of other injustices brought about by board members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform.

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