Article Co-Authors: Mark H. Gruesner, William A. Crandall IIIBy Peter W. Riley
Article Authors: Max H. Hacker, John C. Goetz, Peter W. Riley
MTLA Magazine, Spring 2004
A recent Google search revealed that, since taking office a little more than three years ago, President Bush has given speeches demanding tort reform over 170 times. By contrast, his father mentioned tort reform in only six speeches in his entire four years in office. The President’s talks about tort reform are often laced with factually inaccurate, even absurd claims, including the assertion that frivolous lawsuits were an important factor in the recession that began shortly after he took office. The President and his supporters regularly claim (without any factual basis) that medical malpractice rates have risen as a result of frivolous lawsuits. In addition, the Republicans in Congress have proposed a smorgasbord of laws intended to limit the rights of citizens in civil lawsuits. These have included restrictions on product liability claims, federalizing of class actions, and a renewed call by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for a floor vote on national no-fault. This last bill would essentially eliminate the ability of persons injured through the negligence of another to hold those responsible for a crash accountable.
The sole reason that many of these bills, at least as of this writing, have failed in Congress has been the courageous leadership of Senate Tom Daschle working with a Democratic caucus that understands the need to be able to hold negligent tort-feasors responsible for their conduct, whether they be drunk drivers, irresponsible manufacturers, or careless doctors. However, this November’s federal elections pose important challenges to the continuing ability of the Senate Democrats to preserve the civil justice system. Several pro-consumer senators, including Senators John Edwards, John Breuax, Bob Graham, and Fritz Hollings, are retiring. The Democrats seeking to replace them face well-funded challengers. In addition, Tom Thune, the candidate hand picked by the White House to run against Senator Daschle, has been promised $20 million by the Bush Cheney Campaign (to run in a state with a population of only 750,000).
Corporate interests are funding many tort-reform-minded candidates. Over the last 20 years, they have poured $2 billion into tort deform efforts. This means that, if we are to preserve the rights of our clients, all of our members must now, more than ever, be willing to support candidates who will stand up for the rights of consumer.
I am well aware that some of our members feel that the MTLA and ATLA are "too political". However, as attorneys, we are uniquely suited to understand the true impact of tort deform. It is indeed our responsibility to become involved in the political process and inform candidates and the public about the true impact of proposed legislation. Unfortunately, running for a political office is expensive, and those who would support tort deform have many wealthy supporters. The American Medical Association alone has pledged over $15 million to seek to limit the rights of medical malpractice victims. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pledged far more than that to the effort to elect candidates who will limit the rights of citizens to be compensated for injuries caused by defective products.
Accordingly, our Association has no choice but to be politically active and to ask that our members support deserving candidates. I wrote in my last column about the partnership that we enjoy with ATLA. Our former President, Kathleen Flynn Peterson, is the current treasurer of ATLA and is an incredibly strong leader on the national level seeking to support candidates who will oppose tort deform. I talk to Kathleen frequently and I am always amazed at her tireless energy in working to protect the rights of our clients. We are indeed lucky to have a national leader like Kathleen as a member of our organization.
We also have battles to fight to protect our clients’ rights on the state level. As I write this, some Republicans in the Minnesota House are hard at work attempting to orchestrate passage of a medical malpractice bill that would severely limit the rights of victims of medical negligence. Regrettably, those pushing this bill seem to have little interest in learning the true facts. Our members have appeared at the legislature, armed with statistics which conclusively show that there is no medical malpractice crisis in Minnesota, a fact which even the President of the Minnesota Medical Association acknowledges. Nevertheless, many legislators seem bent on passing a bill to limit the rights of the most seriously injured malpractice victims, even though their proposed remedy for a non-existent problem won’t have any impact on medical malpractice premiums. At the same time, the legitimate Minnesota Citizens Forum on Health Care Costs, chaired by former Senator Dave Durenburger, does not mention medical malpractice as one of the problems nor one of the solutions.
On the state level, we are blessed with an excellent lobbying team, led by Joel Carlson and Tim Adams. David Johnson, a former state senator, has agreed to join our lobbying team this year to help us get our message through to those legislators who are willing to listen to the facts. Our Association will do its best to preserve the rights of citizens of the State of Minnesota. Here again, the members of MTLA have a critical role to play to help us successfully defeat tort deform legislation. Each of us needs to take every opportunity to tell our friends and neighbors and acquaintances about the importance of the civil justice system and the true facts about how that system functions. In addition, everyone needs to respond generously when we call upon you to support pro-consumer candidates for the Minnesota House in this election year.
As you read this, the MTLA officers are conducting meetings throughout the state to bring all of our members up to date regarding legislative and association matters.
An important topic of discussion at these meetings will be the financial health of MTLA.
It is an unfortunate fact that the current association revenues are insufficient to pay our full operating expenses. For the last few years, a small portion of the association operating expenses have been paid through withdrawals from the Justice Fund. These have included approximately $17,000.00 per year in lobbying and communication expenses. In addition, the MTLA budget contains no provision for depreciation or a reserve for upgrades on our computer, copying and other communications services.
Finally, the executive committee recently authorized hiring an additional lobbyist, former Senator Dave Johnson, to assist in our legislative efforts this year.
Because there was no provision for Dave’s contract in this operating budget, these funds too are being withdrawn from the Justice Fund. This year alone, the MTLA will withdraw over $57,000.00 from the Justice Fund that should be part of our operating budget.
Accordingly, I have initiated a review of our association’s revenue structure. Obviously, member dues are the single largest source of association income. Our finance committee, executive committee, and board of governors are looking at proposals to eliminate the deficit in our budget.
One of the principal purposes of the meetings around the state is to listen to your reactions to these revenue issues, and to seek your input. We will do so not only through the meetings around the state, but also through our list serves, on-line surveys, and broadcast fax surveys. I urge you to weigh in with your thoughts and ideas. We face important challenges, both legislatively and as an association. I am very confident we can meet these challenges, but doing so will require both hard work and everyone’s participation. As always, I invite you to call, write or e-mail me with your thoughts, ideas and reactions to these ongoing discussions. I view the leadership of this organization as both an honor and a responsibility. Its continued success is integral to our representation of our clients.