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Sunday, August 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GOP using 'tort reform' as powerful political club

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The drive to limit court-awarded damages in civil lawsuits, often called "tort reform," usually is framed as a contest between accident victims' rights and corporations' desire to be protected from unreasonably high judgments. Increasingly, however, the battle is deeply partisan, as conservative groups try to mobilize the political right and cripple a key Democratic constituency, trial lawyers.

Just as the Republican Party has used opposition to taxes as a mechanism to win over middle- and working-class voters, "tort reform" has become the GOP's rallying cry to unite its core supporters and encourage them to reach for their checkbooks.

"It's a double kiss," said a key strategist involved in the battle taking place in Congress, state legislatures, bar associations and local judicial elections. "Republicans get to force one of the biggest backers of Democrats to spend money just to survive and, at the same time, please everybody from the Chamber (of Commerce) to the drug companies, to the Realtors, doctors, you name it."

Ed Lazarus, a Democratic political operative who works for the American Trial Lawyers Association, said: "(I)t's very clear what the program is — it is to defund the Democratic Party." For the GOP, he said, "it's a double-header: more income for your side, and you take income from the other."

At least 21 states have passed some form of tort revision this year, and Congress is weighing several proposals. While the drive generally is seen as a winning issue for Republicans, intraparty quarrels have erupted — most notably in Florida — where some Republicans think their colleagues are reaching too far.

Trial lawyers generally represent people who file suits alleging they were wrongly injured by defective products, reckless corporations, careless doctors and so forth. The lawyers typically work for a contingency fee, so their pay is based on the size of the plaintiff's court award or out-of-court settlement, if any.

Many Republicans and their allies view the large judgments won by some trial lawyers — on behalf of injured patients, states seeking repayment for smoking-related health costs, asbestosis victims, people injured in defective vehicles — as a drain on the economy, a disincentive to those contemplating entrepreneurial risk and a major factor in rising health-care costs.

"One of the biggest obstacles to growth is the lawsuit industry," President Bush declared in a 2002 Mississippi speech as the legislature there was taking up tort legislation. "Junk and frivolous lawsuits can ruin an honest business. It hurts economic vitality and economic growth."

Consumer advocates and trial lawyers, however, say lawmakers should not crimp courts' ability to compensate victims for wrongful actions, known as torts.

"The role of trial lawyers in a free-market world is absolutely essential as a check on the natural tendencies of large business organizations to exploit the public," Richard Scruggs, a prominent trial lawyer, said in a recent speech. "The government is ill-equipped and regularly compromised in its efforts to curb abuses like predatory lending to seniors, or the various securities scams we have heard so much about recently. Without trial lawyers as their champions, public citizens are left exposed and vulnerable to unethical business greed."

Both sides in the issue are spending lavishly to push or to block tort legislation at the federal and state levels. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1998 created the Institute for Legal Reform to fight for limits on lawsuit awards. The institute spent about $100 million through 2002 and expects to spend $40 million this year.

Advocates on both sides of the issue agree that Bush's 2000 election put "tort reform" on the nation's political and legislative front burner.

Under the guidance of political adviser Karl Rove, Bush has railed for years against lawyers who specialize in suing corporations, doctors, hospitals, tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. When he became Texas governor in 1995, Bush said his election was, among other things, a call to curb "junk and frivolous lawsuits."

Pending in Congress are White House-backed measures to limit noneconomic damages (such as for pain and suffering) and punitive awards to $250,000 each in medical-malpractice cases.

Another proposal would restrict the use of class-action suits, which often produce large settlements. The measure would allow corporate defendants to move jurisdiction in cases involving more than $5 million — from state courts, which are often sympathetic to plaintiffs, to federal courts, which are less so.

The Republican Party has compiled figures showing that, over the past 12 years, the Democratic Party and its candidates have received more than $49 million from trial lawyers, compared with $1 million for the GOP and its candidates. Democratic 2004 presidential candidates so far have received $4.4 million from trial lawyers, compared with $9,500 for Bush, according to Republican calculations.

Conversely, the pharmaceutical-manufacturing industry — often a defendant in civil lawsuits — has given Republicans $51 million of its $71 million in total political contributions since 1990. Tobacco companies, which have lost billions of dollars in tort cases, have given $3 to Republicans for every $1 to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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