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"The Challenges Ahead - President's Page"

MTLA Magazine
September 2003

Article Author: Peter W. Riley

As MTLA approaches its 50th Anniversary in 2004, we find our profession and the rights we stand for facing serious threats. Big business, insurance companies, the Chamber of Commerce and other organizations have launched a full frontal assault on our civil justice system. If these forces have their way, the right to a civil jury trial will simply no longer exist. Failing that, insurers and big business want to create special privileges, immunities and protections. At the national level, we have seen efforts to severely restrict the rights of those who are injured by defective products and medical malpractice. We recently saw the United States House of Representatives pass a bill that would severely restrict the rights of the most severely injured victims of medical malpractice without doing anything to reduce the injuries and deaths that occur as a result of preventable medical errors.

Imagine that a 737 aircraft full of 150 passengers crashed each day for four successive days. By the fifth day, there would not be a single 737 flying anywhere in the world until the cause were found. Certainly no one would propose that the solution to these crashes would lie in limiting the recovery rights of the families of the crash victims.

However, more than 150 people die every day as a result of preventable medical errors and the response of the medical malpractice insurance industry and the United States House of Representatives has been a bill which would only limit the right of recovery of the most serious victims of medical malpractice, and do nothing to reduce preventable medical errors.

No one must make the mistake of believing that the attempt to limit the rights of victims of negligence is merely a national trend, and that we in Minnesota are immune. This year we saw the passage of a bill that, if it had been law at the time of the Hollidazzle parade tragedy, would have denied the little girl who lost her arm approximately 80 percent of the damages awarded by the jury. Other bills introduced at the legislature this year would have turned no-fault into managed care, would have applied work comp treatment limits to no-fault, and would have capped damages and attorney’s fees in medical malpractice cases. You can be sure that all of these bills and many more will be back next year.

In pushing these laws to restrict the rights of all to equal justice, the rallying cry of the politicians, corporate spokesmen, and insurance CEO’s is that they want to stop "the greedy trial lawyers". They don’t want to talk about the lives that we have helped mend by recovering medical bills and fair damages for pain and suffering. They don’t want to talk about the defective products like the Pinto automobiles and weight loss drugs that kill, and that have been taken off the market as a result of action by civil attorneys. Instead, the speaker of the Minnesota House in a column in The St. Paul Pioneer Press last year said that the battle against joint and several liability was being fueled by "trial lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes". We are in a war of name calling and sound bites and we must fight back.

We will do so in many ways. To begin with, we will make two principles that guide us crystal clear:

1. We stand for equal justice for all. This not only means equal damages for all victims of negligence or defective products, but equal responsibility for all who cause injury. We will not allow a manufacturer of a particular product, whether it be a medical product or household device, to have a limitation on their responsibility for pain and suffering or medical bills simply because they can influence those in power in the Legislature, Congress, the Presidency or the Governor’s office.

2. We support the right to trial by jury. Nothing achieves fairness better than going before a group of citizens to make a defendant explain their conduct, whether it be in how they drove their car, why they served so much liquor to an obvious drunk, or how their carelessness caused unnecessary removal of a woman’s breasts when she was not ill at all.

We will be persistent in our efforts to communicate our message to the people and to the Legislature.

We will accomplish these goals by working together. The theme of this year’s convention in Arrowwood was "Partners in Justice". These partnerships begin right here at the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association. We work with our lobbying team, our fantastic staff and with our members. On our List Serves, every day we share ideas about how to meet the challenges we face in our cases.

We will work with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which has been an invaluable ally, not only in dealing with national issues that would affect each of our clients, but also in helping our organization look at how we communicate the truth regarding the civil justice system to the public at large.

We will work in partnership with other citizen and consumer organizations, including the Minnesota Consumer Alliance, labor organizations and Consumers Union to fight legislation that would create special privileges or immunities.

We will reinvigorate our grass roots efforts so that every member of our organization can communicate the true facts to the media leaders in their community, whether it be newspaper editors, television news directors, or their friends and colleagues.

Each of you must play a key role in this effort. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, now is the time to ask not what the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America have done for you lately but rather to ask more than ever what you can do for MTLA and ATLA. Three of those things are:

1. When you receive a fax or phone call regarding contributions for candidates or our political action committee, respond and give all that you can.

2. When we call upon you to assist in our grass roots efforts to have open end lines of communication with media leaders, including reporters, news directors, editors and legislators, respond and get the message out.

3. Participate within MTLA. Get on committees, share your ideas.

And with your help, we can and will win this battle. When I think about the efforts ahead, I realize that it is no different from what we as trial lawyers do all the time. We take on cases of individuals with claims against insurance companies and large corporations. Just as we can never hope to match the amount of money the Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association, and big corporations are pouring into their attempt to destroy the civil justice system, we know when we go to court, we can never match the assets and financial fire power of the corporations and insurance companies who oppose us. Yet we can, and do, win all the time.

Please know this will not just be a one-year effort under my leadership. As Kate Flom, Will Fluegel, Chris Messerly and Joe Crumley in turn take over the leadership of this organization, they too will be carrying forward on the plans we are laying today. Please do everything you can to help us preserve the civil justice system.