First, let me say I am not very familiar with the specific ins and outs of the "Gun Industry Lawsuit Shield" passed by congress today, but I can say unequivocally this whole genre of legislation is not in the bests interests of the American people nor in keeping with the great tradition of American government. I am not speaking of gun control issues, but rather of Republican sponsored tort reform.
In this particular case, the supporters of this legislation had three things going for them. One, the frivolous lawsuits meme has traction. Two, people love their guns, and they will back anything which appears to protect their right to bear arms. Three, the NRA is what you might call a "powerful" lobby.
The second two need no further explanation, of course. But the first one is key, and really, this type of legislation falls under the tort reform umbrella more so than gun control. Make no mistake, this is a slippery slope issue.
To rally support tort reform, Republicans successfully promote the idea of frivolous lawsuits gone wild. It is, admittedly, a powerful frame. They draw upon greedy, ambulance chasing lawyers, huge awards for frivolous claims, the high cost of litigation, doctors who can't afford medical insurance and can no longer "practice their love with women all across this country," jobs lost as small businesses can't afford insurance and/or face crippling lawsuits, and so on. All they have to do is cite an example of a mother suing a fast food chain for millions because after she fed her kids three super-sized happy meals per day, to her great surprise she realized they were fat.
This is how they speak of tort reform issues, and it sounds good, doesn't it? Many Democrats agree that these frivolous lawsuits have gotten out of hand and need to be dealt with. But make no mistake, curtailing frivolous lawsuits is not the Republican end goal of this sort of legislative course.
The Republican approach to tort reform has been either, as in this case, to advocate huge blanket protections for entire industries, or apply across-the-board caps on jury awards.
For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at John Edwards' ideas. Back when he was a presidential candidate, he proposed a three-strike system for trial attorneys. Under his proposal, an attorney who filed three frivolous lawsuits would be barred from filing another for ten years. See the difference? Edwards' plan might not be perfect, and, particularly as I described it here, it's certainly lacking details, but it actually goes after the problem of frivolous lawsuits.
Now, let's take a look at the Republican approach again. If congress tells the courts which cases can and cannot be tried, how many justifiable cases are going to be thrown away with the bad? How many corporations are going to avoid accountability because congressional Republicans decided they cannot be sued? With caps on awards, the most likely to be hurt are the most meritorious cases. Which cases generally receive the largest awards? Why, the most meritorious, of course. So those who will benefit most from these caps will be the corporations guilty of the worst and costliest negligence. A few ridiculous cases of jury awards gone bad (which of course really do need to be dealt with) are being used to undermine consumer protections and remove more and more corporate accountability.
Americans who are legitimate victims of corporate negligence are most hurt, while corporations receive unprecedented protections. Does that sound like an idea most Americans would support? Like Edwards suggested, we need to deal with actual abuses and not hijack the issue to advance a corporatist agenda.
Bills like today's protection of the gun industry and the obesity bill passed yesterday might sound good to some people, but they are slippery slope issues which lead to a place most Americans do not want to go.
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