Lawyers `super-size' own cut, and we pay

August 04, 2002|By Kathy Read | Kathy Read,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

For those who appreciate orchestra seats in the theater of the absurd, this is your lucky day. We now have a personal injury lawyer in New York who -- with a straight face -- wants to hold fast-food restaurants accountable for his client's weight and health problems by claiming Big Macs are as addictive as Marlboro's.

It would be a laughable situation if it didn't amount to another swipe at two of our most basic liberties: freedom of choice and the constitutional process of making law.

Unelected personal injury lawyers have taken it upon themselves to "protect" us innocent consumers from all the evils associated with making our own decisions. Hiding behind a thin veil of "consumer protection," these lawyers have pounced upon seemingly wealthy defendants with one objective in mind: money.

Unfortunately, the consequences of their greed are borne by all of us. Parks are closed because of fear of lawsuits. Playgrounds have no equipment on them. Swimming pools don't have diving boards. Our children's education suffers as teachers are forbidden from disciplining disruptive or violent students. Vaccines and medications have been taken off the market.

Am I now going to have to sign a waiver every time I say "super-size it"? What happened to my ability to choose whether I wanted to swing on a swing, jump off a diving board, or ask for extra cheese?

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err." The way things are going, the lawyers are going to save us all from our freedom to err, and we'll be living in a police state.

That's not so farfetched. America's justice system changed for the worse when personal injury lawyers were allowed to work on a contingency fee. By putting lawyers on a commission basis, we effectively provided them with a perverse incentive to file lawsuits advancing their personal wealth rather than the cause of justice.

Because lawyers -- as officers of the court -- literally have the power of the state behind them, a lawsuit cannot simply be ignored.

There must be a response, and a defense, regardless of the merit of the case. It's essentially the same scenario as if we had put our state police on a commission basis to write speeding tickets. The encroachment on our freedoms, and the potential for abuse of the system, are the natural outcomes.

A more frightening outcome in our system is the robust growth of legislation by litigation. As opposed to letting Congress pass laws affecting how we live our lives, and how business is conducted, the personal injury lawyers are doing it.

Hungry for contingency fees, and with disregard for our sovereignty as human beings, the personal injury lawyers are using the judicial system to restrict trade, regulate business and impact all of our lives.

This trend goes completely against the notion of checks and balances established in our Constitution. Congress allows the plaintiffs' lawyers to get away with this gross breach of duty because large parts of the multimillion-dollar contingency fees wind up in campaign coffers.

Unfortunately, the American people are the ultimate losers in this corrupt game of tit-for-tat. Congressional inaction on much-needed tort reform legislation is on the verge of making the phrase "our elected representatives" irrelevant.

Lawsuits on behalf of the artery-clogged and obscenely obese ought to collapse under their own weight. What the country really needs are lawsuits against the personal injury lawyers who crowd our courtrooms and demean our system of justice with such frivolous actions.

The legions of American consumers and taxpayers who exercise personal responsibility and who, in the final analysis, have to pick up the tab for the personal lawyers' greed, are the ones who deserve a break today.

Kathy Read is former publisher of The Wilson Quarterly, the official journal of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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