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August 2006 Archives

By David Yas

(This article appeared in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, 07-10-2006)

I like to think that I'm a pretty decent guy to invite to a party. I know a couple of knock-knock jokes and I'm not a bad dancer.

But the Association of Trial Lawyers of America wouldn't have me at its party in Seattle last month.

As a member of the media, I was once again barred from attending ATLA's annual convention. For the second year running, ATLA did not want the press at its big show. They didn't want reporters snooping around seminars, strolling across the plush carpet of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, and grabbing free coffee and muffins.

On the association's Website, ATLA encourages its members to attend in order (in part) "to be energized, refreshed, and revitalized by views of snow-capped mountains, spectacular sunsets, and distinctive neighborhoods."

Quit rubbing it in, guys. Why couldn't I come?

Well, I'm not sure.

ATLA first made its decision to ban the media from its convention a year ago, announcing the move just a week before its annual convention in Toronto. Press passes and media guidelines had already been issued. Plane and hotel reservations had been made. Reporters had their notebooks at the ready—and were then abruptly told to stay home.

In a statement made at the time, ATLA said: "Due to an ambitious schedule and large number of attendees at ATLA's annual membership convention we have decided that we are going to focus our attention on communicating with our members directly, rather than external audiences."

You might think ATLA would be concerned about publicly lifting the image of the trial lawyer—especially these days. ATLA folks keep a very close eye on all of the nasty things that politicians—particularly President George W. Bush—say about trial lawyers. When Sir W. pushes for tort reform, ATLA always aspires to push back.

On its Website, ATLA reminds members to "play your part in ATLA's fight to improve the image of trial lawyers everywhere."

Right. Play your part. But make sure you don't talk to reporters at our annual blow-out convention. If you see one coming, drop your complimentary tote bag and run the other way.

Umm ... guys ... what does that do for the image of trial lawyers?

Why the Soviet-style silence?

One guess is that ATLA fears that inviting all media to its convention would amount to welcoming the enemy into its underground lair.

According to the Website of a publication called Insurance Journal, ATLA denied IJ's request for a media credential at its 2004 convention in Boston.

An ATLA official apparently wrote to IJ: "I fear we must stick with our credentialing decision. Yours is a publication with a point of view which clearly serves an audience in opposition to free and open access to the courts and the independent authority of citizen juries and whose interests are too frequently the polar opposite of people injured through no fault of their own, whom our members represent. I am sure you understand."

Most bar associations, by the way, invite everyone to the party. The 400,000-member American Bar Association has a longstanding open meetings policy. The Massachusetts Bar Association has tables set up for members of the media or the public to toddle in if they want to listen in on a monthly House of Delegates meeting. I can tell you that I have sat through many of these meetings, and nary a scandal has emerged. Except for the day they briefly ran out of coffee, but I'd rather not talk about it.

I can only conclude that ATLA is hiding some terribly juicy story. Possibly some matter of national security or, indeed, biblical proportions.

It has determined who really killed Kennedy. It has invented a fat-free cream cheese that doesn't taste like spackle. It has figured out why people are still paying Matthew McConaghey to make films.

No reporters invited. If you don't know the handshake, you're denied admission at the door. Sorry, guys. Double-secret convention.

I placed a couple calls to ATLA officials, but all I got was this one-line emailed explanation: "Our top priority during ATLA's convention is providing our members with information and services that will help them fight for justice in our courts but as always if Lawyers Weekly or any other press outlet needs to reach us, they will be able to do so."

And, as if I just requested some salt with my wound, I learn that this is, in fact, ATLA's 60th anniversary.

"Join with your colleagues in recalling important milestones of ATLA's past, as we gather strength and inspiration for the current and future fight to save the civil justice system," my ATLA friends tell me.

No strength and inspiration for me. No free coffee. No tote bag.

Hope you had fun in Seattle, ATLA members. Just don't tell me about it.

Trial lawyers may be fighting a bare-knuckle, public-image battle. But what happens at ATLA, stays at ATLA.

David Yas is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Minnesota Lawyer's sister publication in Boston. If you attended the ATLA conference, he would be more than happy if you would send him your complimentary tote bag.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Dolan Media Newswires

By John Stossel

(This piece appeared in the New York Sun on August 4, 2006)

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America recently changed its name to the American Association for Justice. It may be a smart PR move, because everyone likes the word "justice," and apparently the name "trial lawyers" has acquired a negative tinge. It's good that it has, because although trial lawyers say they "protect the little guy," that's a myth. In truth, for every little guy they help, they hurt thousands.

When those big medical malpractice awards hit the headlines, it sounds like the little guy was helped. "$1 million awarded to victim of medical device!" But the headline leaves out a great deal. First, the suit cost everyone involved � and that includes you � much more than $1million. In addition to the million-dollar settlement, there were the court costs and legal fees charged by the defense lawyers � many defense lawyers, considering the plaintiff probably sued not just the maker of the medical equipment, but the surgeon, an internist, some nurses, the hospital, and God knows how many others. Lawsuits routinely name as many as a dozen people, because to not include someone who is later revealed to be at fault may expose the lawyer to a charge of legal malpractice.

For the lawyers and people like me, a lawsuit is just another part of our work, but for most people, it's a life-wrecking experience. Nurses are terrified. Doctors can't sleep. Their hard-earned reputations are trashed by newspapers quoting plaintiffs' lawyers, who paint deceitful pictures of the doctors' incompetence and negligence. The doctors are forced to hire defense lawyers who eat up their time, energy, and entire life savings. Patients suffer while their physicians spend several hours a week with attorneys, preparing for and giving depositions. The suit drags on for years.

Soon doctors begin practicing hyperdefensive medicine, ordering expensive and largely unnecessary tests to avoid lawsuits. Some of the tests are painful for the patients. Today, 51% of doctors recommend invasive procedures like biopsies more often than they believe are medically necessary.

Doctors become more secretive, talk less openly with patients and become averse to acknowledging any mistake. Insurance premiums rise, and both doctors and hospitals pass the cost on to patients. Newly fearful, the medical device manufacturer decides to stick to proven technologies, dropping its plan to pursue a new line of tools that would make surgery less painful and less risky. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Lawyers, of course, get a big percentage of any award, but to cover what the lawyers take, the price tags of all consumer goods are a little higher. Life-saving products are especially penalized by the "lawyer tax." A manufacturer who produces pacemakers says lawsuits add thousands of dollars to the cost of every pacemaker. Lawsuits punish hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people.

Critics of lawsuit abuse tend to focus only on the cost of litigation.The cost is nasty. But the higher cost is just the start of the nasty side effects. What's worse is that fear of lawsuits now deprives us of things that make our lives better.

Sure, fear of the "invisible fist" makes manufacturers more careful. Some lives have been saved because the litigation threat got companies to make their products safer. That's the "seen" benefit.

But that benefit comes with a bigger unseen cost: The fear that stops the bad things stops good things, too � new vaccines, new drugs, new medical devices. Fear suffocates the innovation that, over the past century, has helped extend our life spans by almost 30 years. Every day, we lose good things.

We can't even begin to imagine the life-saving products that might have existed � if innovators didn't live in a climate of fear. That'll be the subject of next week's column.

Mr. Stossel is co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20" and the author of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel � Why Everything You Know is Wrong."

 

 


Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.