ATLA, The 105th Congress, and the US Chamber

NCATL Around the State Magazine
Summer 1998

ATLA, THE 105TH CONGRESS, AND THE US CHAMBER

Howard Twiggs
ATLA Immediate Past President
Copyright © 1998 by North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers; Howard Twiggs

As Past President of ATLA, it is a pleasure to report that under the capable leadership of President Richard Hailey and President-Elect Mark Mandell, ATLA is having a great year. Again this year, under the direction of Executive Director Tom Henderson, ATLA continues to have the best professional staff in Washington.

Anti-consumer Legislation

While many issues are still pending in Congress, such as products legislation, no fault, immunity for tobacco, loser pay, and a host of other legislation designed to protect wrongdoers, I am pleased to report that no anti-consumer tort legislation has been enacted so far by the 105th Congress.

US Chamber of Commerce v. Trial Lawyers

In December 1997, the Washington Post, Washington Times, and Roll Call reported that the US Chamber of Commerce, one of Washington's largest business lobbyists, was gearing up for a multi-million dollar campaign to attack trial lawyers.

The Jan. 11, 1998 Roll Call reported that the Chamber planned to unleash "an attack on the trial lawyers never seen before. The time is right to move from kicking the unions to hitting the lawyers." The article reported that Tom Donohue, President of the US Chamber, had on his agenda "going toe-to-toe with trial lawyers."
The lead banner on the US Chamber's web page began with the headline "Help the US Chamber Take On The Trial Lawyers." The story went on to ask Chamber members to send in their stories on how their businesses were "affected by lawsuit abuse."

On Jan. 29, 1998, The Ledger (Lakeland, Florida) quoted Mr. Donohue as saying: "We are going to evaluate the judges, we are going to show these trial lawyers to the American people, and we are going to make it more difficult for them to screw up the American system."

ATLA was told that the US Chamber intended to put $10 million into their attack on trial lawyers using television ads and lobbying in both Congress and the states. In discussing this lobbying effort, Mr. Donohue said: "We'll try to influence (politicians in Washington), we'll persuade them, we'll lobby them, and if they don't listen, then we're going to sue them" (Ledger, 1/28/98).

In December and early in January, ATLA believed that a war on lawyers was going to be declared by the US Chamber of Commerce. But, a war made no sense to us since the United States was in the midst of an unprecedented six-year economic boom-with record high corporate profits and low unemployment. Also, the US was ranked as the "world's most competitive nation" (World Competitiveness Report), the insurance costs of businesses had steadily declined every year between 1993 and 1996 (Towers Perrin) and manufacturing was at its strongest position in the last 20 years, accounting for 19.1 percent of gross domestic product, according to the US Department of Commerce.

The sky wasn't falling, and it was totally ridiculous to believe that lawyers were dragging down the economy. In fact, the consumer protection laws that Big Business loves to hate, actually enhance competitiveness by motivating companies to make the safest, highest quality products possible-products that people around the world want to buy.

Trial Lawyers Respond

The US Chamber's attack on trial lawyers, and in reality all lawyers, did not go unnoticed in North Carolina. In Wayne County, Academy members Phil Baddour and Jon Williams, both of whom are Directors of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, brought the US Chamber's anticipated attack to the attention of their Chamber. At the request of Dick Taylor, Academy members began contacting local Chambers asking for their help in opposing the US Chamber's attack on lawyers. Wade Byrd contacted the Fayetteville Chamber; Alex Hall, the Wilmington Chamber; Everett Thompson, the Elizabeth City Chamber; and the Salisbury and Jacksonville Chambers were asked for help. President-Elect Elizabeth Kuniholm appeared before the NC Bar Association's (NCBA) Board of Governors in January 1998 and discussed the US Chamber's unprecedented intention to attack lawyers.

The results of these efforts were immediately felt in Washington. Many local Chambers, including Wayne County, Salisbury, and Jacksonville wrote to the US Chamber protesting their decision and suggesting that "lawyers and Chambers of Commerce should act as partners, not adversaries, in defending the civil justice system." The NCBA, by resolution, protested Mr. Donohue's decision to attack trial lawyers. Following the lead of the NCBA, the American Bar Association (ABA) became involved and opposed the anticipated attack.

5,000 not 800,000

On Thursday, Mar. 12, 1998, at the Annual Meeting of the North Carolina and South Carolina Chambers in Pinehurst, the luncheon speaker was Mr. Donohue, the President and CEO of the US Chamber. Before the luncheon, at a meeting with Mr. Donohue arranged by both the Wayne County and Salisbury County Chambers, Bill Scoggin, the lobbyist for the NCBA, Dick Taylor, and I were invited to join a small group to discuss the US Chamber's attack on lawyers. The meeting was cordial and productive. It concluded by Mr. Donohue saying the Chamber would not attack all lawyers, but only a limited number of lawyers, a group identified as being "5,000 out of 800,000." The group to be attacked by the US Chamber is now limited to "ambulance chasing lawyers" and some (but certainly not all) class action plaintiff's lawyers. I left the meeting in Pinehurst with the feeling that the attack on lawyers was not an attack on the ABA, the NCBA, the Academy, or even ATLA. At the same time, I left the meeting with no real idea who the 5,000 targeted lawyers are, or how they will be singled out for attack.
While the US Chamber of Commerce and trial lawyers will continue to disagree on issues such as products liability legislation and other so-called "tort reform" issues, I believe the climate is right for our differences to be enthusiastically debated as opponents-not as bitter enemies.

Four Rights

On many other issues, trial lawyers and the business community can constructively work together to build a better America. After all, trial lawyers are small businesses. As a first step, I suggest that we agree on certain rights which are not spelled out in the constitution, and that we begin, by defining these four rights:

  1. The right of every medical patient to be informed of all the options for treating their conditions and the right to choose which doctor or hospital they want to treat them;
  2. The right of every child to a decent standard of nutrition, shelter, and a decent education;
  3. The right of every senior citizen to be treated with dignity and without physical abuse; and
  4. The right of every American and the right of every American business entity to be compensated for their loss when they have been injured or defrauded by some person or entity.
  5. Will the US Chamber of Commerce agree to enunciating these rights? Yes, I believe they will.
    1998 WL 34002828 (NCATL)