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If trial lawyers had a dashboard saint, it would be Ralph Nader — America’s unofficial consumer-advocate-in-chief for the past three decades. Yet the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the nation’s most important group of plaintiffs lawyers, is telling its members not to support Nader in his campaign for the presidency. Explains ATLA president Fred Baron, of Dallas’s Baron & Budd: “As much as we all admire Ralph, a vote for Nader is tantamount to a vote for Bush.” And trial lawyers see the Republicans’ presidential candidate George W. Bush as no less than Corporate America’s handmaiden. Really? Quips Nader: “I always thought a vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for Ralph Nader.” If elected, Nader has pledged to work to repeal all the state and federal tort reform measures in place. Interestingly, though, it’s not only votes the trial lawyers are worried about wasting on Nader. Despite the fact that they love his message, they’re doing next to nothing to help him advertise it. As of August 1, lawyers of every stripe had contributed a mere $20,750 to Nader’s presidential campaign, according to The Center For Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C., watchdog organization — this when the Democratic candidate Al Gore is clearly not their ideal. Sure, Gore has said that, if elected president, he would pass a patients’ rights bill that has some teeth. But it’s difficult to imagine a group with more reason to be disappointed in Gore’s choice of Lieberman as a running mate than the trial lawyers. And, while Gore may be “his own man,” he did serve as vice president in an administration with a tort reform record that Nader describes as deeply flawed. In Lieberman, Gore picked a man who is unsurpassed among Senate Democrats in his support of tort reform, a crusade that offends plaintiffs’ lawyers both philosophically and economically. Gore also passed over Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a former trial lawyer, who was on the shortlist of running mate possibilities. “Joe Lieberman is the most effective Democrat in the Senate” on tort reform, says Victor Schwartz, a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Crowell & Moring and general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association. Lieberman’s home state of Connecticut is the headquarters for several major insurance companies — a major source of funding for his Senate campaigns. And he has frequently broken with his party to support tort reform bills, including a 1996 product liability bill that was vetoed by the president. At a press conference last summer, Lieberman acknowledged, “I’ve supported just about every tort reform proposal that’s come along the track in my 11 years here.” Nader agrees with that assessment but phrases it a bit differently. He says, “Joe Lieberman never met an immunity bill for corporations that he didn’t like.” Still, Baron says, “trial lawyers are so anxious to see the vice president elected, I doubt very seriously if [Lieberman] will make one bit of difference.” Nader, of course, is hoping that it will. Nader also says that Clinton’s record on tort reform may be a warning of what a Gore administration would tolerate. As far as he’s concerned, George W., as governor of Texas, has courted “a wrongdoers’ coalition,” made up of insurers and the tobacco, automotive, oil, chemical, and health care industries. Although Clinton has opposed the most ambitious of the tort reformers’ schemes, Nader says that his record is still one of “salami-slice” erosion of the civil justice system by signing numerous bite-sized tort reform measures. Clinton has signed a number of bills limiting the recourse of injured people and their lawyers. Under Clinton: � The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 sets an 18-year statute of repose for small aircraft and aircraft parts. That means a plaintiff can’t sue if a defective airplane or part is more than 18 years old. � The Federally Supported Health Centers Assistance Act of 1995 limits the liability of community health centers by treating them as though they were agencies of the federal government. Plaintiffs may sue only under the Federal Tort Claims Act. � The Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 declares that punitive damages and damages for emotional distress are taxable income. � The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 prohibits lawyers and insurance representatives from contacting the survivors or families of people killed in an airline crash for 30 days from the date of the crash. � The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 protects people or companies from most civil suits and criminal prosecution that otherwise might arise from food donations. � The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1996 includes a controversial provision limiting the medical malpractice liability of cruise ship operators. � The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 bars negligence lawsuits against people who volunteer for nonprofits or government agencies. � The Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 caps damages from a single passenger rail accident at $200 million. It also says that plaintiffs may not recover punitive damages without proving a defendant acted with a flagrant indifference to the rights of others. � The Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 requires that class actions involving 50 or more plaintiffs be filed in federal court. This closes the loophole in the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, forcing plaintiffs’ lawyers to operate under a broad set of limits on federal securities suits that were passed in 1995 over the president’s veto. � The Biomaterials Access Assurance Act of 1998 partially immunizes companies that supply raw materials or components for medical implants. Litigation against silicone breast implant manufacturers, well under way at the time, was specifically exempted from the law. � The Year 2000 Information and Readiness Act establishes many new procedural and factual requirements for plaintiffs claiming damages from a year-2000 failure. It also requires a plaintiff to provide the defendant with a 90-day notice period in which to fix any problem. It raises the bar for punitive damages. And it provides that defendants generally will be required to pay only their proportional share of the damages. Class actions claiming $10 million and involving more than 100 plaintiffs are to be heard in federal court. One of the broadest and most bitterly fought of Clinton’s tort reform measures, the Y2K Act became a non-issue when New Year’s Day came and went without disaster. Nevertheless, Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association, does not consider Clinton an ally. “When it came to the major proposals, the ones that were more comprehensive in scope, [Clinton] was an opponent,” he says. Congress overrode Clinton’s veto of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act. Clinton also vetoed the 1996 bill, supported by Lieberman, that would have established new federal product liability rules: The Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Bill would have barred punitive damages unless a plaintiff could show by clear and convincing evidence that a defendant acted with a “conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of others.” Even then, punitive damages would have been capped. And Clinton used the presidential bully pulpit to help causes dear to the trial lawyers’ hearts. Under him, the Food and Drug Administration did fight, albeit unsuccessfully, to regulate nicotine. And the Justice Department did bring an unprecedented suit against Big Tobacco for billions in dollars that the government claims it spent treating sick smokers. That claim is pending in Washington, D.C., federal court. These efforts seem to have been enough to have won, if not the trial lawyers’ hearts, then at least a very strong show of support. In July, Clinton for the first time ever appeared before ATLA. He took for his occasion the group’s annual convention in Chicago. And the plaintiffs’ lawyers were enthusiastic, giving the outgoing president a welcome the city usually reserves for Sammy Sosa. With Gore, their enthusiasm is manifesting itself in substantial contributions. As of August 25, lawyers had donated $4.75 million to his campaign. Sorry, Ralph.

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