WASHINGTON, April 2, 2017 – Despite any and all the negative press they get, civil lawsuits—those seeking compensation for wrongs committed and, occasionally, punitive damages to punish wrongdoers—matter significantly in this country and often serve to change dangerous or counterproductive behavior by individuals and corporations.
Many Americans today are not aware that colonial Americans fought the Revolutionary War in significant part over England’s repeated efforts to restrict jury trials. The adoption of the U.S. Constitution was almost lost over its initial failure to guarantee the right to a trial by jury in civil cases. Congress fixed that concern in 1791 by making that right a key part of the Bill of Rights as the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.
Our nation’s Founders believed that a fair and properly constructed civil justice system was critical for the protection of individual liberties against injustice, and against those in superior economic positions.
The judiciary is the third branch of government. Like the two other branches—the legislature and the executive—it, too, is designed to be a check on the others.
Jurors are the backbone and the voice of the judiciary. They are chosen randomly and are immune from the typical influences that are so often seen corrupting the political system and the actors in the other two branches of the government.
Jurors are supposed to be unbiased and are seated to serve as the voice of the community. For over two centuries jurors, have served as a check on misuse of power. They uphold civil rights, they denounce corporate abuses, and they are sometimes able to right wrongs when the criminal justice system fails victims.
Small cases are the very fabric of America’s legal system. It is important to note that the vast majority of civil cases decided are not sensationalized or even reported in the media.
Consider this bit of information from a recent report issued by The National Center for State Courts:
“50 percent of jury awards in tort cases were $30,000 or less, and 75 percent were less than $152,000.”
Jury awards provide signals and warnings at local, state and national levels indicating that certain types of conduct will not be tolerated.
Most civil lawsuits that are filed involve local matters in a neighborhood or town, with results that can and often do change behaviors and right wrongs. Examples might include a butcher selling bad meat, a car dealer setting back the odometer on a used car, or a doctor with a poor or dishonest practice. Few cases of this nature get national attention. But they reverberate through the community and effect subtle changes that often prove helpful to that community.
Some cases are bigger in scope and stature and, as a result, do attract national attention, particularly when the alleged wrongdoers deny all responsibility for harm done. Consider the lament of Dr. David Ozonoff, a toxicologist at Boston University, who described the frustrating series of litigation defenses that the asbestos industry employed over many years to stave off a legal reckoning:
- Asbestos doesn’t hurt your health.
- OK, it does hurt your health, but it doesn’t cause cancer.
- OK, asbestos can cause cancer, but not our kind of asbestos.
- OK, our kind of asbestos can cause cancer, but not the kind this person got.
- OK, our kind of asbestos can cause cancer, but not at the doses to which this person was exposed.
- OK, asbestos does cause cancer at this dosage, but this person got his disease from something else – like smoking.
- OK, he was exposed to our asbestos and it did cause his cancer, but we did not know about the danger when we allowed him to be exposed.
- OK, we knew about the danger when we exposed him, but the statute of limitations has run out.
- OK, the statute of limitations hasn’t run out, but if we’re guilty we’ll go out of business and everyone will be worse off.
- OK, we’ll agree to go out of business, but only if you let us keep part of our company intact, and only if you limit our liability for the harms we have caused.
What follows is a representative listing of significant lawsuits that, like the lengthy asbestos litigation, sent important messages and changed behaviors:
Bryan Stowe, a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, and a 45-year-old paramedic, was at a Dodgers baseball game in 2011. He was badly beaten by Dodgers fans after the game in an unsecured, dimly-lit parking lot. He is now brain damaged. Jurors entered an $18 million dollar verdict, $13.9 million of which was assessed against the Dodgers. Said juror Carlos Muñoz after the verdict “Hopefully we helped to fix it… if you’re going to own a stadium, do it right.”
In 1990, an African American woman was attacked by “skinheads” and was awarded $1.75 million by a jury. The forewoman said after the verdict that they doubled the punitive damages sought by the woman in order to send a message that such conduct won’t be tolerated.
In 1984 in Los Angeles, California, a jury awarded $5.5 million to the family of a 19-year-old young man who died after his motorcycle was hit by a police officer’s truck. The verdict against the city came after it was revealed that it was common knowledge that the officer had a drinking problem, and that he had been drinking for seven hours before the accident. Police on the scene had made a concerted effort to protect the officer. The jury forewoman said that “misconduct was overlooked, and when it was found, there was just a slap on the wrist.”
General Motors was sued for a widespread ignition switch defect in a number of its models. They had known for over a decade that millions of their cars were being driven with these faulty switches which, when they malfunctioned, caused power loss that would deactivate critical systems like brakes, steering and airbags. It took litigation arising out of a defective switch incident that resulted in the death of Brooke Melton to discover that GM had covered up the problem. Millions of cars were subsequently recalled, and GM paid close to a billion dollars in criminal fines while remedying that safety failure in all the recalled cars. Sadly, over time, hundreds of individuals died or suffered serious injuries. If it not been for this lawsuit, the public may never have learned about the ignition switch defect with the result that needless deaths would have continued.
In product liability (unsafe products) law, verdicts and settlements following the filing of civil lawsuits have resulted in the removal of unsafe products from the market, the elimination of unsafe practices, and the saving of millions of lives. These lawsuits have also provided information to regulators, forcing them to act on the “larger scheme of things” specific to a given product’s exposed health risks and problems.
Lawsuits can make a difference for something as simple as a washing machine. In 1998, a nine year-old girl’s right hand was caught and pulled into a Westinghouse washing machine as she added some towels to a load of laundry. Six surgeries later, her arm had to be amputated at the elbow. The case was eventually settled for $3.1 million. The manufacturer also agreed to equip all its new machines with a lid safety switch and to make a retrofit kit available to those still using the older, defective machines.
Other examples of lawsuit effectiveness include verdicts or settlements that have changed behaviors or eliminated problematic issues with pregnancy tests, dietary supplements, radiator fans, latex gloves, escalators, pool drains, hammocks, car windshields, cigarette lighters, clothing, toys, tampons, drain cleaners, oral contraceptives, breast implants, furniture polish, vehicle cruise control, and much, much more. Lawsuits that have changed and arguably improved the medical and health fields are too numerous to list, as these cases run over thousands of pages.
Today’s lesson: Lawsuits provide a needed vehicle for change. For that reason, try not jump to conclusions when the news media or those who might be responsible for serious problems, results or consequences denounce the efforts by wronged parties to seek remedies or relief. Each case is ultimately controlled by the facts. But often, those facts are hidden from public view, and only the litigation process can reveal the truth. Then, hopefully, justice will follow.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. His new book “Step By Step, Achieve Small Business Success” is available at www.thebusinessanswer.com.
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