This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

April 12, 2006

Frivolous rumors hurt our legal representatives

Laura Stealey

If you're from the Charleston area, you may have seen billboards from the Chamber of Commerce reading, "Please don't feed the trial lawyers." The Chamber plans to spend up to $1.5 million on similar ads since it recently ranked West Virginia's court system as the most unfair in the country. Some of these ads compare lawyers to crocodiles and cite the statistic that lawsuits cost each American $886 per year. This adds up to $1.6 billion in West Virginia alone.

These statistics, first of all, are misleading. They include several significant costs that are not directly related to lawsuits. However, even if the figures were true, the chamber is taking the wrong road in addressing the problem. Portraying all lawyers as money-hungry and unethical is like criticizing all drivers because some choose to drive drunk. The chamber and other groups that stir up bad publicity about lawyers and our court system are taking the easy way out by pointing their fingers at the most obvious target.
There are real issues regarding our court system that need to be addressed. West Virg inia is certainly in somewhat of a crisis, but the blame doesn't rest with trial lawyers. Most of the trial lawyers who are being disparaged are people who have spent their careers working to make sure injured people are adequately compensated for harms they have suffered. This is something to be applauded. Especially with our state's history of out-of-state coal interests working miners nearly to death, refusing to pay fair wages, and basically controlling the workers' lives, it seems we are all too quick to forget the past. We have made many improvements in the safety precautions and working conditions in the mines, but it would be a disservice to the people who worked for those changes to let corporate interests control the courts again.
And without trial lawyers to stand up for "the little guy," that's exactly what will happen. Big companies have a high financial interest in reducing suits against them. For example, Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, donated $3.5 million to Brent Benjamin's campaign for the West Virginia Supreme Court. Benjamin, a former employee of a law firm that represented coal industry interests, defeated incumbent Warren McGraw. All of this occurred soon before a major lawsuit against Massey reached the state Supreme Court.

Companies like Massey are against suits that are filed against them, but they have no problem asserting their own rights in court. Blankenship and Massey are currently engaged in a $300 million lawsuit against United Mine Workers of America, WV Consumers for Justice and the Charleston Gazette for making defamatory statements about them.

There are logical reforms for frivolous lawsuits that could filter out unreasonable lawsuits without punishing people with legitimate claims. We need rational ideas that start at the source of the problem, not attempts to rectify the situation late in the game. Blankenship stated in an interview regarding his current suit, "I want fairness." So should the rest of West Virginians.

If we blindly go along with companies and organizations like the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and continue to senselessly blame trial lawyers for everything that's wrong with our system, we are sending a message to companies that it's OK for them to continue buying judges and other elected officials who will make vital decisions about our access to the courts. Lawsuit reforms may seem to be a blessing, but as the saying goes, "Give an inch, they'll take a mile." We may find ourselves reliving history sooner than we think.

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Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246