Blowing Smoke

Think Colorado's courts are overstuffed? So sue me.

Other targeted industries might be gun makers and gun retailers, predicted state senator Mark Hillman, as well as automobiles, fast-food chains (cholesterol can kill, after all), even Hollywood.

Standing under the banner of forum sponsor Marsh -- a company that's part of the Marsh & McLennan conglomerate, whose clients just happen to include Firestone and Nabisco, owner of Philip Morris -- speaker after speaker insisted they were not "shills" for the insurance industry. Instead, Joyce warned of the "meshing of the personal-injury bar with elected officials" (more details at www.triallawyermoney.org), while state representative Doug Dean compared trial lawyers to bounty hunters. "Colorado is losing ground in tort reform," complained representative Tambor Williams. And Colorado must take this seriously, she added, because the national trial lawyers' group has made Colorado one of three states it's targeted for action in 2001.

This came as news to members of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, several of whom were seated in the belly of the beast Tuesday morning. In fact, a quick call to the American Trial Lawyers Association revealed that no such three-state hit list exists. But that doesn't mean the trial lawyers can't rise to the occasion when called -- just as the American Tort Reform Association can, and does, push its agenda in different states.

In the just-released The CALA Files: the Secret Campaign by Big Tobacco and Other Major Industries to Take Away Your Rights, Public Citizen and the Center for Justice and Democracy outline how the ATRA has helped build a network of local organizations that "act as mouthpieces for anti-consumer tort law changes." For their report, the two organizations studied eighteen "CALA" groups -- the names are all variations on Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse -- and found that "large corporations seeking to reduce their liability to consumers created and bankrolled the CALA campaign to manipulate the media, the legislative process, the electoral process and the American public."

Chief among those large corporations was Big Tobacco. One 1995 memo outlined the strategy: "The communication program is intended to enhance our ability to enact favorable legislation at both the federal and state levels. It is also intended to put the trial bar on the defensive, and to improve the legislative climate concerning tort issues, both because of pressure from constituents and through possible electoral changes in the composition of various legislatures. Because these media activities, to be effective, must not be linked to the tobacco industry, we hope that significant industry funding encourages other groups to make similar contributions to support such activities."

Five years later, Colorado has its very own CALA -- the Colorado Civil Justice League -- ready to blow a lot of smoke. "This is about fairness," insisted Richard Westfall, a lawyer formerly with the Colorado attorney general's staff. "The people of Colorado are deeply rooted in fairness."

And with any luck, those people of Colorado -- who elect the legislators and make up the juries -- will be able to continue to decide for themselves when a lawsuit is legitimate and when it's frivolous, rather than have Jabs's group do it for them. Otherwise, they've got a good case for secondhand smoke-blowing.

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