- Brad Friedman (Originally published by Truthout on 11/8/11)
Yeah, I know, the GOP is at War against citizens' rights to do just about everything that isn't U.S. Chamber of Commerce approved these days. That's just one of the reasons citizens are finally taking to the streets to fight back. One of the ongoing Republican Wars getting very little attention is their War on the right of citizens to sue huge corporations for negligence, malfeasance and other wrong-doing.
A few weeks ago I spent some time at a conference for mass tort plaintiff attorneys in Las Vegas, as hosted by my friend Mike Papantonio, the co-host of radio's Ring of Fire (along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sam Seder). Pap is one of the nation's premier class action plaintiff attorneys, one of those folks willing to go to bat for the little guy when they're screwed over by huge conscience-free corporations.
I was invited to the conference to speak on a panel concerning the proposed $12 million hit scheme discovered earlier this year being plotted on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to turn tools developed by U.S. government contractors for the "War on Terror" against U.S. citizens like myself and my family. According to emails released on the Internet, the Chamber was working with mega-law firm Hunton & Williams and three federal cyber-security firms (HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies) to smear, defraud, plant false documents, and spy on their perceived political enemies such as myself and other progressive organizations.
The Chamber, which is all too happy to use mafia-like tactics to take down its perceived opponents, has also long been leading the charge on behalf of their enormous corporate members for so-called "tort reform," meant to do little more than make it next-to-impossible for citizens to fight back in a court of law against corporate abuse, neglect, and malfeasance...
Among the many "reforms" being pushed by the Chamber and their bought-and-paid-for GOP cronies (both elected officials and judges --- the Chamber is the nation's top funder of campaigns, with some 97% of their corporate millions going to Republican candidates and causes) are "caps" on damage judgments in such class-action suits.
The problem is, as Rev. Al Sharpton pointed out during a very smart luncheon keynote address at the Vegas conference, is that the corporations being sued have no similar "caps" placed on the amount of money they are allowed to use to defend themselves in such lawsuits.
So where a citizen who is, say, maimed or killed by corporate malfeasance is likely unable to personally have the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars it might cost to have an attorney take on a massive corporation with unlimited resources, law firms that might otherwise represent plaintiff in a tort or mass tort are unlikely to do so on a pro bono basis if they are unable to both cover their own fees and make a profit at the end of the day, should they be meritorious in the case.
Make no mistake, the attempt to cap damage awards in such suits is meant to keep citizens from being able to bring such suits at all. Period. Even though it's often the only way to try and keep corporate abuse in check --- particularly as government entities which once might have done so have largely been perverted, corrupted and defanged by the very same elected officials the Chamber helped put into office in the first place.
One case in point is the pending class-action suit against Bayer Pharmaceuticals that Papantonio's firm has now taken on. On the Friday we were at the conference, ABC News' Nightline happened to tell the story of Carissa Ubersox, a pediatric nurse who nearly died after taking YAZ, a birth control pill touted by Bayer as a "miracle" drug for its alleged ability to also treat acne and symptoms of PMS...
According to Nightline's report, after Ubersox began taking YAZ, she ended up with "massive blood clots in both lungs" and fell into a coma which "lasted almost two weeks." When she awoke from the coma she had gone blind, and now she's no longer able to work as a pediatric nurse as she rebuilds her life from scratch.
After the drug was touted in television ads by the company, and media outlets who bought into their PR, as a new "miracle pill" for PMS, sales of the drug immediately sky-rocketed to some $2 billion a year, making it Bayer's top-selling drug.
It was sold as "Beyond Birth Control," in a massive and misleading television and print advertising campaign, for its supposed ability to fight acne (for which actually safe alternatives are available) and PMS (which the company was eventually forced to admit it didn't actually have any effect on.)
After complaints were filed, the FDA finally forced Bayer to spend $20 million on corrective YAZ ads, admitting that the pill was "not...shown to be effective" in countering symptoms of PMS, the very thing that helped it, along with targeted marketing to young girls as an acne treatment, become a $2 billion/year sensation.
Even with the $20 million penalty from the FDA (which has now re-opened its investigation into the drug), Bayer's lies were extremely profitable for them. That is, unless they can be held accountable by a citizens' class-action suit going after a portion of that $2 billion dollars per year that Bayer took in.
While all birth control pills are known to offer a small risk of blood clots in users, Bayer insists that YAZ didn't offer higher risk than other birth control pills. However, the company's claims were based on their own (non-independent) studies. As Boston University School of Medicine professor Susan Jick explains in the Nightline report, "two Bayer studies found no increase in risk, while the four independent studies all found increased risk."
Thousands of women are now suing Bayer, which claims no wrong-doing. The suit includes cases of woman who were allegedly killed thanks to their use of YAZ, or acquired liver tumors, pulmonary embolism, gall bladder disease, strokes, organ failure, sudden death syndrome and other deadly maladies, according to Papantonio.
But who would have the personal funds to go after Bayer and their unlimited funds (remember, YAZ alone brought them $2 billion per year in sales) they are most certainly willing to pay attorneys to defend the company in a court of law? Certainly Ubsersox, the now-former pediatric nurse who lost her sight --- and livelihood along with it --- can't afford to do so. Not on her own. Not without a law firm willing to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars with the hope of a payday at the end of the process should they be lucky enough to win.
If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their Republican stooges have their way, nobody will be able to afford to do so.
Another featured speaker at Papantonio's conference was Susan Saladoff, the attorney and first-time filmmaker who decided to stop practicing law for two years in order to create Hot Coffee, the eye-opening 2011 HBO documentary highlighting the corporate assault on citizen rights to bring such lawsuits.
Among the stories told in the film is the now-infamous story of the 81-year old woman who was initially awarded $2.9 million --- two days of coffee sales --- in a lawsuit against McDonald's after she was severely burned by coffee served purposely and dangerously hot by the fast-food giant. That story, of course, has since become a joke among the public. It's been used by corporate media tools as one of the poster children for "frivolous lawsuits", "jackpot justice" and "lawsuit abuse".
But did you know that the woman whose case has become a national punch-line was burned so severely that she required massive skin grafts after doctors didn't know if she would even live? That all she originally sued for was the $800 to re-cover the medical costs that her insurance and Medicare wouldn't cover?
Probably not. Credit the massive PR campaign run by corporate spin-meisters to help assure that if you are seriously injured, maimed or killed by corporate neglect or malfeasance, you will have little recourse in the future.
If you've not seen the film (available on DVD November 1), do yourself the favor of at least watching the 2.5-minute trailer for it below...
...and next time you hear about all of those "frivolous lawsuits" against corporate America, remember it's very likely no more than yet another well-funded attempt to rob you of yet one more of your dwindling civil and constitutional rights, by the very same liars, thugs and miscreants who pretend to be in favor of "freedom", when, in reality, they are interested in anything but --- and willing to spend millions, if not billions, to take yours away from you.
The week before last, Hot Coffee filmmaker Saladoff was a guest on the Colbert Report. That terrific interview follows below...
If you're interested in more on the YAZ case, Papantonio has discussed it several times on Ring of Fire, most recently in this interview from February of this year...