Tuesday, July 15, 2003

In defense of lawyers and lawsuits
By Mary E. Alexander

      While studying for a master's degree at the School of Public Health at UC-Berkeley in the 1970s, I happened to attend a lecture about the dangers of a chemical called benzene and its link with leukemia. I recalled that my husband had once worked in a civil engineering lab where he tested asphalt road samples with pure benzene.

      A few months after that lecture, my husband, then 28, was diagnosed with leukemia. I wondered if his exposure to benzene had caused his disease and why the law did not protect workers and consumers from such dangerous products. Never certain what caused his condition, I decided that I wanted to save American workers and realized I needed a courtroom to be effective. That led me to Santa Clara School of Law; in October of my first year, my husband died of leukemia.

      As a lawyer, I've learned that when juries speak, corporate America listens. I doubt anyone believes that corporations would change their conduct without being compelled to by lawsuits and judgments by the courts.

      Yet, President Bush has complained about ``frivolous'' and ``junk'' lawsuits in more than 50 speeches so far since he took office. He and other politicians regularly attack the legal system -- the place of last resort for Americans who need to be heard. These arguments distort the issue. Moreover, the number of frivolous cases is minuscule, and the system's existing checks and balances properly reverse them.

Honorable examples

      Was it a frivolous battle to hold tobacco accountable for its years of lies and cover-ups? To challenge faulty tires that killed people? To gain justice for victims of pedophiles in the clergy? To help workers who lose corporate pensions like Enron's? To aid the victims of years of secret toxic and nuclear waste dumping? To help a woman who loses her breasts because of a mismatched patient's diagnosis? Even in the famous McDonald's case, where a woman was burned by hot coffee, was it really frivolous to point out that the corporation had ignored over 700 identical cases and the high temperature unnecessarily provoked third degree burns when spilled?

      According to the Consumer Federation of America, an estimated 6,000 deaths and millions of injuries are prevented each year because of the deterrent effect of product liability lawsuits. Without lawyers, Americans would still be driving on defective tires, asbestos would still line the walls of schools and homes, and badly designed cribs would strangle babies.

      The Senate is debating a bill that would put a cap on damages, and the House just passed a bill to curtail class action lawsuits. But a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that limits medical malpractice cases won't make patients safer, guarantee they'll have a doctor when they need one or bring down insurance rates for patients or doctors. What these bills will do is reward the insurance industry and corporations with higher profits and less accountability and prohibit juries of regular Americans from holding harmful interests accountable.

Lawyers' purpose

      We as lawyers, with character, courage, compassion and a keen moral compass, battle for our clients, fight for victims, and protect the nation from defective products through our justice system. This is what makes me proud to be a lawyer, and the public must demand no less of us. And people have a right to know that those who condemn us for political reasons are in fact contrary to this critical public purpose.


      MARY E. ALEXANDER is president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. A graduate of Santa Clara University Law School, she practices law in San Francisco and San Jose. She wrote this for the Mercury News.