Meese: Trial lawyers draining the economy

By Chris Rizo | Oct 8, 2009

Edwin Meese III

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-Frivolous lawsuits filed by the nation's trial lawyers are a drain on the economy, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III said Thursday night.

Meese, who served in Ronald Reagan's California gubernatorial and U.S. presidential administrations, said lawsuit abuse is a "silent drain on the economy" and "a stealth threat to businesses and consumers."

Speaking at a Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse event in Sacramento, Calif., Meese said frivolous lawsuits have not only increased the cost of nearly all goods and services, it has affected the nation's health care system.

He said plaintiffs' lawyers have driven many doctors away from serving swaths of the country.

"The fact is that lawsuits and the threats of lawsuits have caused whole areas in our country to without doctors, particularly obstetricians," Meese said. "When you have a tort system that is unfair, excessively costly and results in unjust awards that are unrelated to true liability or actual damages that people suffer, you have a serious problem for our society."

In addition to public health issues created by frivolous lawsuits, legal abuse leads to lost jobs, lower wages, fewer innovations and higher costs for businesses, Meese said, referencing a study by the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

In California, where Meese said the business community is already forced to pay higher taxes and adhere to more regulations than in many other states, lawsuit abuse poses and added threat - one that often drives companies from the state.

"California is one of the most taxed and regulated states in the Union," he said. "To then add litigation and lawsuit abuse further deteriorates the economic conditions in California."

California's legal climate ranks in the bottom 10 of states. The Golden State was ranked 44th in an annual comparison by Harris Interactive of states' legal climates from the perspective of in-house corporate counsels around the nation.

Meese, who serves as chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said legal reform is the duty of the states to address.

"The federal government can do very little about it because most of the lawsuits take place in the state courts," Meese said. "This is why it is absolutely critical that states such as California do in fact take serious action to make the courts more fair and just."

He said Texas and Mississippi have "shown the way" to enacting tort reforms.

In Texas, he said the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse "turned Texas totally around" through a combination of legislation and ballot measures. In Mississippi, Meese said Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, through his aggressive stance against trial lawyer abuses, took the Magnolia State off the list of states where plaintiffs' firms preferred to bring forth civil complaints.

Still, there are plenty of judicial venues where trial lawyers seek to have their cases heard. Meese said plaintiffs firms actively work together to bring suits, particularly in those courts they see as plaintiff-friendly.

Meese said attorneys' fees from the landmark multistate tobacco settlement of 1998, which he called a "one of the great travesties of justice in this country," has provided trial lawyers with "a tremendous amount of money," allowing plaintiffs' firms to work in collusion to "see who they can sue next."

"These guys fly in their Gulfstream Vs to very exotic places and hold their seminars to see who they can sue next," Meese said. "It really is a bunch of people working in collusion in order to in-effect expand lawsuit abuse."

Trial lawyers, he said, have been artful in their efforts to conceal their actions, noting that plaintiff lawyer groups have changed their names to "fool the public" as to their motives.

The Washington-based American Association for Justice was formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and the Consumer Attorneys of California was formerly called the California Trial Lawyers Association.

Meese said trial lawyers' undue influence can be overcome most effectively through local activities.

"The key to fighting the trial lawyers and getting a just tort system is grassroots activity," he said, praising Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse for "informing and inspiring" the public as to trial lawyer abuses.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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