April 20, 1999
The Big Lie

Austin — Dick Weekley's crusade to free Texas businesses from the "devastating"  injustices of the civil justice system is resorting to a tactic often used by national "tort deform" advocates: mangling the truth and spreading deceptive anecdotes.

Three Strikes
Recently, Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr., D-Houston, called Weekley's Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) and the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce (TABCC) onto the carpet for repeatedly distorting the facts of cases that they cited to muster support for a bill that would limit so-called "third-party" legal liability.

Dutton began investigating the business groups' loose facts after they mischaracterized a case in which Dutton served as the plaintiff's attorney.  Dutton says that three times in succession the Chamber submitted information to him in support of its lawsuit-abuse claims and three times the information supplied skewed the facts.

At issue was a TABCC direct mail piece claiming that small business owners are responsible for crimes committed on their property if the perpetrator goes unapprehended.  When asked by Dutton for documentation of a lawsuit described in the mailer, TABCC responded with examples, which did not involve unapprehended criminals or fit the facts described by the tort-deform advocates.  In fact, in one of the cases referred to as an example of  "devastating settlements against Texas business," the business owner did not have to pay money to anyone.

Tort zealots have been coupling scare tactics with fictionalized facts for years.

Sugar Coated
In its 1995 push for federal tort protections, the national Chamber of Commence ran ads depicting the Girl Scouts as  "victims of lawsuit abuse," going so far as to calculate how many cookies they must sell to cover their liability insurance. The only problem was the victims did not feel victimized. "It's not  true at all that we have been barraged with frivolous lawsuits," Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. spokesperson Bonnie McEwan complained of  the deceptive ad campaign.

In the most infamous tort anecdote, the American Tort Reform Association publicized only splattered facts from a lawsuit filed by an 81 year-old woman who was severely burned by McDonald’s coffee in 1992. Among the facts that they found too inconvenient too mention:

A recent purveyor of freewheeling tort anecdotes is the Washington Legal Foundation. This pro-business group has purchased a rash of ads on the New York Times op-ed page to circulate fallacious tales of lawsuit abuse. The latest Brill's Content Magazine takes the Times to task for running the ads but declining to run letters that point out their many inaccuracies.

Numerically Challenged Accountants
Back in Texas, the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants were caught with their calculators down when testifying for special liability protection for themselves before the House State Affairs Committee in 1997.

Grilled by committee members, trade group representatives could not cite a single case of lawsuit abuse against their profession in Texas, much less quantify the extent of the alleged problem.

Even as TLR chief Dick Weekley and the corporate front group Citizens for a Sound Economy clamor for relief from the hidden "tort tax," the actual cost of the U.S. liability system is small and getting smaller.  According to Ernst and Young and the Risk & Insurance Management Society of New York, total liability costs for U.S. companies in 1997 were $5.25 per $1,000 of revenue, an amount that has fallen 37 percent over the last five years.

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Texans for Public Justice is a non-partisan, non-profit policy & research organization
 which tracks the influence of money in politics.

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