In Attacking Lawyers, Bush and Quayle Enter Culture War

September 06, 1992|By LYLE DENNISTON

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- Take away the tart rhetoric in the assault on lawyers by President Bush and Vice President Quayle, and what becomes clear is that they have chosen to take one side in a true culture war.

This is the war, with lawyers as the field generals, over who is to pay and how much when an American gets hurt or dies -- in an accident, from faulty medical care, from a poorly made or dangerous product.

For at least a generation, major American industries and the nation's doctors and hospitals have been trying to change the rules of that legal war so that they win more often. Now, after years of getting little sympathy here, their efforts are getting the most official support ever: in the Bush-Quayle campaign.

The simple-sounding rhetoric the GOP candidates use often obscures, if it does not hide altogether, the genuine cultural conflict that has gone on for decades in the nation's courts and legislatures in the "battle of torts" -- conflict that will continue no matter who wins the November election, and that is, in fact, not likely to change much any time soon.

In that cultural conflict, the Republican ticket has chosen to line up on one side, with business and the doctors, but the rhetoric does not make that plain. Much of the rhetoric, and many of the statistics, are borrowed directly -- not always with credit -- from some of the most aggressive defenders of business and medicine in the war over damage verdicts.

Much of the GOP rhetoric aims at only one target -- the lawyers, as if they not only had brought about the cultural conflict over paying for personal injuries and deaths, but also were uniquely responsible for making the conflict worse.

The caricature Mr. Bush and Mr. Quayle have been seeking to portray as real is of greedy attorneys getting paid extravagant fees by grabbing a large share of the bloated verdicts won through trumped-up legal claims.

Mr. Bush has taken the complaint against lawyers up a notch or two lately, seeking to portray the lawyers as playboys luxuriating in yuppie comfort. He has chosen the "tasseled loafer" as the defining symbol of their class (presumably, to differentiate the lawyers from commonplace Americans who lace up their shoes).

In a speech last month, the president sought to drive home his and Mr. Quayle's basic argument that those "trial lawyers" will sue in a minute, over anything. Said Mr. Bush: "I want to get rid of all those crazy lawsuits. If you fall off a stepladder today, a lawyer will be there to catch you before you hit the ground."

The lawyers now being condemned roundly by the president and Mr. Quayle represent people, often ordinary people not well-off financially, who seek to persuade courts of their belief that wrongs done by harmful products, or by medical malpractice, or by avoidable accidents, should be paid for by the wrongdoers.

Among the stack of lawsuits their lawyers file for them are always some that look or sound gimmicky, and that provide easy ammunition for the critics of the current system of personal injury and death lawsuits; such supposedly frivolous examples are cited as proof that the system is too easily manipulated and abused by "sharp lawyers," as Mr. Bush calls them.

A Maryland case has been picked out by the critics as one of that type. It is a lawsuit filed for Tawana Hammond, a young Carroll County woman. She is suing the county school board for $1.5 million for injuries that she blames on school officials for not telling her how much risk of serious injury she faced by going out for the high school football team.

Ms. Hammond's case is fast becoming a celebrated one, after getting prominent mention on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal -- a place where the industry and medical challengers to tort lawsuits regularly find solace.

The attack by the president and vice president on lawyers who bring such lawsuits is "just a diversion, a smoke-screen, put up on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers," says Consumers Union lawyer Linda Lipsen.

A vocal advocate in favor of doing more, not less, to assure that lawyers are available to bring what she insists are truly meritorious and necessary damage cases, Ms. Lipsen complains that Mr. Bush, Mr. Quayle and other critics of "tort" lawyers "are mean-spirited in the extreme, and they are hiding behind their anti-lawyer rhetoric."

Not visible at all in this year's GOP complaints are the lawyers who are on the other side of the cultural conflict. They are the ones who represent big business and the medical profession, firms that make chemicals, drugs, autos, or cigarettes, and their insurance companies, and doctors, surgeons and hospitals and their insurers.

Lawyers as a group routinely rank very low in public esteem -- "everyone's favorite whipping-profession," as Ms. Lipsen sadly concedes. But there is no proof that the low standing in opinion polls is reserved solely for lawyers on one side of that system.

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