The U.S. Chamber Goes Online to Track Civil Litigation

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a stroke of good timing, launched an online site covering civil lawsuits in Louisiana just weeks before the blowout on BP's (BP) oil rig spawned thousands of lawsuits in the state. The lobbying group wants to draw attention to court districts it deems hostile to business. The online journal, the Louisiana Record, doesn't disclose the Chamber's ownership on its site.

The Louisiana Record was launched in March, says publisher Brian Timpone. And it's the fourth such publication that the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform has backed. "We do this assessment of how much civil litigation there is vs. the norm," Timpone says. "In places where there's more cases filed than the norm, we go cover the civil lawsuits."

The other Chamber-owned journals are in Madison County, Ill., Charleston, W. Va., and Beaumont, Tex.—all cited in an Institute study this year for having among the worst legal climates for business. New Orleans was already on the list in August when a panel of federal judges consolidated hundreds of claims there related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

The Institute's website says it was created to "neutralize" trial lawyers' "excessive influence over the legal and political systems." The Institute had a budget of $41.7 million in 2008, according to its IRS filings. It spent $16.8 million on lobbying this year, says the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog. "The Chamber is one of the most politically active entities in the nation," says Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the center. "It doesn't certainly have a history of sitting back and just calling balls and strikes."

The Louisiana Record's stories on civil cases have headlines that say: "Worker claims boss compared her to his wife," and "Supreme Court to decide statute of limitations on Katrina litigation." The "About Us" section says "This year, Louisiana's courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive (HPOL)) of top corporate lawyers and business executives." The Harris survey was paid for by the Institute.

The website is an effort "to dupe the public and tamper with juries," says Ray De Lorenzi, director of communications for the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyer trade group. "The Chamber believes that the way to control public opinion is to take control of the media." Timpone says the legal journal is editorially independent and not designed to trumpet the Chamber's message. "The whole goal of this endeavor is to make sure that people know what's happening at the courthouse."

The bottom line: The U.S. Chamber is keeping close tabs on civil lawsuits with a new legal journal in New Orleans, where most BP cases will be heard.

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