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Firms target trial lawyers

Election fight is pivotal for corporate US

WASHINGTON -- The billionaire chairman of an insurance company describes members of the group as "terrorists." To the head of a national wholesalers group, they seem like "predators."

The US Chamber of Commerce is cosponsoring a $10 million advertising campaign to "educate voters about the devastating impact" these people are having on the American way of life.

The target of these attacks is not Al Qaeda or some new pestilence sweeping the nation. It's trial lawyers.

These days, the people who bring personal injury lawsuits against corporations, insurers, and health care providers have replaced "union bosses" as the group corporate America identifies as its public enemy.

And this year, more than ever before, the war of words between corporate leaders and trial lawyers echoes in the battle for the White House. President Bush has long campaigned against what he calls "frivolous and junk lawsuits," and he hopes to make "tort reform" a centerpiece of a second term in office. Business leaders hope he gets an opportunity.

"We cannot ignore what may prove to be a make-or-break election for legal reform at the national level," said Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president, shunning the business lobby's traditional neutrality in presidential races. "When voters go to the polls, they need to know lawsuit abuse destroys jobs, drives doctors out of business, and forces companies into bankruptcy."

The assault on trial lawyers has particular resonance in 2004, as business leaders confront the prospect that a highly successful trial lawyer, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, will be a heartbeat from the presidency if his Democratic running mate, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, wins the White House.

"You cannot be pro-doctor, pro-patient, pro-hospital, and pro-trial lawyer at the same time," Bush said at a rally Friday in West Virginia. "You have to choose. My opponent made his choice, and he put him on the ticket."

While business leaders have put their money behind Bush's campaign, the trial lawyers have put their dollars behind the Democrats. They say Kerry and Edwards will preserve the right to jury trials as a check on corporate power.

John O'Quinn, a veteran trial lawyer from Houston, also sees this as a make-or-break election.

"Corporate America is in charge these days. They control the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. But so far, they don't control the right to trial by a jury. That's the only place where ordinary citizens can go and have their complaints heard," Quinn said. "Ordinary people can't hire lobbyists in Washington, but in the courtroom, they get an equal chance to stand up against a corporation."

He and other trial lawyers find it laughable to hear stories that they get rich filing "frivolous" lawsuits. Unlike corporate lawyers, who are paid handsomely by the hour to protect their clients, those who sue on behalf of plaintiffs usually get paid only if they win a verdict or a settlement.

Both sides can point to opinion surveys to bolster their cause.

Most Americans -- 80 percent in a recent poll -- say the nation has too many lawsuits and too much litigation. But when Time magazine conducted a poll on the selection of Edwards as the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee, his career as a trial lawyer helped him with voters. Among those surveyed, 55 percent said his work as a trial lawyer indicated that he was "willing to fight for the average person against the big companies."

Voters in the same poll were more troubled by Vice President Dick Cheney's background as the chief executive at Halliburton, the Texas oil company and defense contractor that has received billions of dollars in contracts to help rebuild Iraq. About 15 percent said they viewed him more favorably because of his Halliburton connection, while 51 percent said they viewed him less favorably for this reason.

"People have conflicting views" on lawyers and lawsuits, said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has conducted focus-group discussions on the issue. "They tend to think lawsuits are detrimental to the country. But they want a lawyer when they have a real need for one."

But despite talk of a litigation explosion, it is not clear that lawsuits or big verdicts are steadily growing.

The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for State Courts track civil trials and verdicts in the nation's 75 largest counties. In April, the bureau reported that in the last decade, the number of cases had gone down, not up.

The number of general civil cases resolved through trial in the nation's largest counties declined from 22,451 in 1992 to 11,908 in 2001, it reported -- a 47 percent decline. The plaintiffs won about half the time, and the overall median award was $37,000 in 2001, down from $65,000 in 1992.

These cases included automobile accidents and medical-malpractice and product-liability claims. About a third of the cases involved contract claims.

The medical malpractice claims resulted in larger verdicts; 27 percent won a verdict, but the median amount in 2001 was $431,000, up from $253,000 in 1992.

These data include only trials and verdicts; most civil lawsuits are dismissed or result in settlements, and no figures are available on those outcomes.

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