Column: Let’s hear it for the little guy |

Column: Let’s hear it for the little guy

by Claire Fortier, editorial page editor

What’s more unfair? The big tobacco companies that routinely lied about the effects of their product on consumers, even while most people knew and smoked anyway, or a jury that awarded an absurd $145 billion to those who claim they didn’t know or were too stupid to realize what their addictions were doing to their health.

Did the little guy finally triumph in the end?

Hardly. The latest obscene judgement against big tobacco is probably the most flagrant example of the need for tort reform since state and federal governments squeezed some $246 billion out of Big Tobacco two years ago.

Whom is fleecing who? The tobacco companies have made millions peddling a product that has serious health consequences. And (what a surprise!) they didn’t tell anyone. In fact they lied. Then the truth was revealed.

Forget that for more than two decades Big Tobacco has been forced to cut advertising, pay for warning labels and pay for millions of no smoking campaigns. Apparently, only fines that could bankrupt most countries were penalty enough for those corporate liars.

Even though Big Tobacco has supported numerous political campaigns, those boys in Washington can sure turn on their friends if the money is good and the publicity even better.

Those absurd legal judgements are the work of a new breed of tort lawyers, who are fleecing private industry with the cheerful assistance and palpable glee of federal and state governments.

As long as government fattens its coffers without political fallout, or better yet, plays to rave reviews by those committed to controlling everyone but themselves, this form of legal fleecing promises to mushroom.

After all, what about alcohol, legal drugs, plastic surgery, skateboard parks, or anything else that has the possibility of harming those who partake or participate?

Now that the federal government has flexed its “moral outrage” muscle, and came up with a fistful of money, it will likely squeeze a lot more companies. Couple that with attorneys motivated by money, not fairness, and we common folk have reason to be afraid.

There is no limit anymore, certainly not limits of decency or fairness. Paying the cost of these absurd judgements will hardly be confined to cigarette smokers, not in this day of global corporations and mega mergers. We the consumers will be paying for the fat attorneys’ fees and corporate profit loss.

But worse is the cost these kinds of legal blackmail will have on our civil liberties. Now that government has found a way to pad its bank account, all the while beating its breast over the terrible betrayal of the little guy, expect government to make more decisions once considered a personal or individual choice.

There is only one way to change this piracy and that is to change our legal system. The notion that anyone can sue anyone at anytime with no real impact if they lose is wrong. If someone files a suit, then he should be prepared to pay the cost to the court and the defendant if the judgement runs against him.

The notion that a lawsuit is a punishment is ridiculous. Punitive damages have a place in the context of fairness, but not as a way of fleecing the defendant. Nowadays, punitive damages have become a socially acceptable way for giving the finger.

Lawsuits need to be risky to both sides, not just those with deep pockets. The impact hopefully will be fewer outrageous lawsuits. Certainly there will be cases where those who cannot afford to lose no matter how justified the claim will be hurt.

But the alternative is even more obscene judgements and more ridiculous lawsuits, with us taxpayers picking up the bill.

Certainly there is some irony that El Dorado County is using the treasure trove it gained from Big Tobacco to build its new judicial complex.

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