Guest view: 'Hellhole' label obscures the truth

December 23, 2013 

Although holiday traditions are usually welcome touchstones for a festive season, one that should be retired is the intentionally distorted and deceptively titled "Judicial Hellhole Report" updated and re-packaged each year by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA). The report is nothing more than the same old junk research with new Christmas wrapping paper, intended to stoke prejudice and public fear as well as create misperception about how the legal system works. If successful, ATRA and its financial backers would roll back the clock to a world in which the little guy is expendable, and preventable injuries at the hands of the powerful go unchallenged.

ATRA is one of the many gargantuan corporate front groups working to undermine the civil justice system in order to help mega corporations avoid responsibility for their dangerous behavior and reckless actions. ATRA has received funding from a "who's who" of industry giants, including tobacco, oil, insurance and health care companies. These industries have been repeatedly found negligent by the courts or have been sanctioned by the government and safety groups because of their dangerous conduct. To further boost record profits and reward their executives, they are determined to block citizens from accessing the courts that their tax dollars fund.

Contrary to popular myth, few Americans file lawsuits. Consider the facts:

* A significant majority of cases in our courts today involve businesses suing other businesses and businesses suing individuals.

* The number of all civil cases filed in Illinois courts has been steadily declining since 2007, down nearly 25 percent.

* The number of medical malpractice cases filed in Illinois has been on a steady decline over the past decade, down nearly 40 percent since 2003.

* In 2012, ISMIE -- the state's largest medical malpractice insurer -- had record profits of $57 million while the number of claims filed by citizens dropped substantially.

Americans rely on courts to hold wrongdoers accountable for the harm they cause when their actions lead to economic loss, physical injury or death. It is often only through our court system that citizens can get a fair shake, particularly when taking on powerful industries and special interests motivated solely by the bottom line -- money.

ATRA supporters do not fear frivolous lawsuits; they know our justice system screens out the very few suits that are without merit. What they fear are meritorious lawsuits -- actions brought by citizens against industries producing dangerous products, putting dangerous drivers on our roads, polluting our environment, swindling their employees to pad their profits or otherwise acting dangerously.The truth is these industries routinely defend the indefensible for years with frivolous defenses in an attempt to wear citizens down financially, something they, of course, never mention in their report.

The real judicial hellhole that ATRA and its financial backers wish to create is one that Americans would not tolerate: a court system in which regular citizens have little chance for justice or even fair treatment because their rights have been stripped away by politicians and courts aligned with powerful corporate special interests.

Americans cannot count on "Christmas spirit" to help ATRA scrooges see the light. That is why trial lawyers will always be the advocates and protectors of ordinary citizens and tirelessly and faithfully oppose efforts to weaken basic legal and constitutional protections that further stack the deck against Illinoisans.

Stephen D. Phillips is president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

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