Sunday, January 14

They Say We Have Too Many Lawsuits? Tell It to Jack Cline

Birmingham, Ala.

Jack Cline is in a hospital here fighting for his life, stricken by leukemia that he says he got from exposure to benzene at his factory job. In most states, he would be able to sue the companies that made the benzene. But Alabama’s all-Republican, wildly pro-business Supreme Court threw out his case.

In a ruling that would have done Kafka proud, the court held that there was never a valid time for Mr. Cline to sue. If he had sued when he was exposed to the benzene, it would have been too early. Alabama law requires people exposed to dangerous chemicals to wait until a “manifest” injury develops. But when his leukemia developed years later, it was too late. Alabama’s statute of limitations requires that suits be brought within two years of exposure.

Mr. Cline, who says God has kept him alive so he can challenge the unfairness of Alabama’s law, told his lawyer, Robert Palmer, to keep fighting. Mr. Palmer started a statewide petition drive, wrote a flurry of op-ed pieces and asked the court to reconsider. In an extraordinary move, it reopened the case and heard new arguments last spring.

Big business and its allies are loudly promoting “tort reform” by arguing that America is drowning in frivolous lawsuits. They are winning the public relations battle. Everyone knows the story of the woman who sued McDonald’s because she was burned by hot coffee. But few people know of the Jack Clines — and there are many of them — who have been denied their day in court.

Corporate America — with its large contributions to political and judicial candidates, and its top-dollar lobbyists — has had remarkable success persuading legislatures and courts to erode the bedrock principle of civil law: when people are injured, they are entitled to sue for damages.

At the top of industry’s list of tactics is immunity — the rather brazen notion that companies should be shielded from lawsuits no matter how negligently or dishonestly they act. Gun makers and dealers, notoriously, persuaded Congress in 2005 to give them immunity when their guns are used to maim and kill.

Industries are also winning immunity at the state level, and attracting far less attention. Pharmaceutical companies pushed through a law in Michigan protecting them when their drugs injure or kill people, as long as the drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. There is no reason F.D.A. approval, a deeply flawed process, should be a shield.

When corporations do end up in court, they have lowered the stakes substantially by undermining punitive damages, which have long been one of the main ways that society deters people from unreasonably putting others at risk. The United States Supreme Court struck a major blow against punitive damages a decade ago, ruling that it was unconstitutional for a jury to award $2 million in punitive damages against an auto dealer that knowingly sold a damaged, repainted BMW as new.

Lower federal court judges, many of whom have been screened by the Bush administration for pro-business sympathies, and state court judges, many of whose campaigns were bankrolled by big business, are eagerly joining in. So are state legislatures. Last month Ohio’s legislature voted to cap punitive damages in many cases against paint companies — which have been accused of selling lead-based paint that causes retardation in children — at a paltry $5,000.

Perhaps the most insidious tactic for slamming the courthouse door on injured people is the stealth use of “pre-emption.” When federal and state laws conflict, the federal law pre-empts, or invalidates, the state law. The Bush administration is taking advantage of this principle by issuing weak regulations in a wide range of areas to wipe out stronger state-law protections. When people try to sue, they may find that their legal rights have been swept away. Among the areas the administration has focused on are automobile roof crushes and mattress flammability.

These incursions on the right to sue, taken together, are a serious assault on justice. In the most extreme cases, they may also be unconstitutional. Mr. Cline’s lawyer, Mr. Palmer, argued that preventing him from ever suing denied him his rights under the Alabama Constitution to seek a legal remedy for his injuries.

Mr. Palmer was encouraged when the Alabama Supreme Court reopened the case. He also saw it as a good sign when it scheduled oral arguments for a special public session on a law school campus, an indication it considered the case particularly significant. The arguments went well. “Questions asked by several justices indicated they were troubled by the legal Catch-22,” The Birmingham News reported.

The court ruled this month. It affirmed the dismissal of Mr. Cline’s case by a 5-to-4 vote. If Mr. Cline wanted to challenge the unfairness of the rules, it said, he would have to take it up with the State Legislature — a body every bit as pro-business as the Alabama Supreme Court.

Mr. Palmer intends to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mr. Cline can take some small comfort in the close vote. Four Alabama justices, at least, would not accept a legal system that told people like him that “no matter when” they “file the action, it is either too soon or too late.”