For decades, business and trial lawyers have squared off in courtrooms over everything from dangerous toys to unfair employment practices. Now, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce intends to intensify--and politicize--the battle. In March, it will unleash a multimillion-dollar campaign against its longtime foes--and the fight is sure to get ugly.
The chamber is asking its 200,000 members to finance a lobbying and advertising blitz that would target many of the laws and legal procedures that help fill the briefcases--and pockets--of trial attorneys. Among the chamber's goals are new restrictions on product-liability lawsuits, class-action litigation, and contingency fees. It also may push for laws requiring employees who bring discrimination suits or other workplace grievances to pay legal costs if they lose. "This would act as a deterrent to frivolous lawsuits," says Lawrence B. Kraus, who is running the project.
While business has been seeking tort reform for years, the chamber is ratcheting up the pressure by painting trial lawyers as legal vultures who use frivolous suits to line their pockets, raise the cost of consumer goods, discourage manufacturers from bringing products to market, and clog the courts. It's no coincidence that trial lawyers are among the biggest givers to the Democratic Party, while the chamber's political arm predominantly supports Republican causes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) ranked No.3--at $3.5 million--among organizations making political donations in the 1995-96 election cycle.
JUDICIAL REFORM. New chamber chief Thomas J. Donohue promises to turn a spotlight on Washington to make clear "who's influencing Congress with how much money." And in states where judges are elected, the chamber will push for laws that would require jurists to recuse themselves if lawyers before the bench contributed to their campaigns.
The strategy will dovetail with complaints by Capitol Hill Republicans about the huge fees that plaintiffs' attorneys stand to earn if a tobacco settlement passes Congress this year. Those fees could reach $55 billion if they're calculated at a standard 15% of the total settlement. Both the GOP and the chamber seem to be following a script laid out by pollster Frank I. Luntz. In a report for Republican candidates, Luntz counseled that "it's almost impossible to go too far when it comes to demonizing lawyers." His advice: Describe the "victims of our society's litigiousness" as the small-business owners and homeowners ruined by baseless lawsuits.
"JUVENILE." ATLA President Richard D. Hailey contends that the chamber has decided to vilify lawyers to deflect attention from efforts to limit consumers' rights to sue for faulty products or against unfair employment practices. "It's the juvenile approach we object to," he says. "Rather than having an adult discourse on public-policy issues, they are engaging in an anti-consumer, anti-lawyer campaign."
That's a refrain business knows well. Manufacturers have waged a fruitless 12-year effort to pass federal legislation that would make it harder to sue over defective goods. In recent weeks, business has agreed to give up attempts to cap punitive damages consumers can collect. But the lawyers won't budge on a proposed compromise that would ban suits involving products more than 18 years old. Business strategists intend to use that intransigence to paint the opposition as greedy nitpickers.
The chamber's attack is sure to energize some lawsuit-weary businesses, but it faces obstacles both internal and external. Many chamber members are themselves lawyers already steamed over the campaign. And then there's that citadel of lawyers on the Hill. That's a lot of angry bogeymen.