By BERNIE LAYNE
CHARLESTON -- For nearly 20 years now, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has perpetuated a fraud on West Virginians.
From the moment it was established here in 1994, WV CALA has refused to disclose who its funders are. It’s long past time for Greg Thomas and CALA to tell the truth about who controls the purse strings and what its agenda really is.
While they claim to be a citizens group, CALAs here and in other states “represent major corporations and industries seeking to escape liability for the harm they cause consumers.”
They are funded by “large corporate donors, including tobacco, insurance, oil and gas, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, medical associations and automobile manufacturers.”
The Washington, D.C., PR firm of APCO Worldwide was paid millions to establish the groups, along with another front group, the American Tort Reform Association. Like CALA, ATRA “members are largely Fortune 500 companies with a direct financial stake in restricting lawsuits.” (http://centerjd.org/content/cala-files-secret-campaign-big-tobacco-and-other-major-industries-take-away-your-rights)
In recent months, Greg Thomas has readily discussed the so-called “business roundtables” hosted by CALA last year as proof that West Virginia business owners are concerned about our civil justice system. Like everything else CALA does, he’s only presenting half the story.
While CALA did host those roundtables, what he fails to disclose is that the events were invitation only and no one was admitted who wasn’t on the approved list. Indeed, several local business owners attempted to attend roundtables in their areas -- including a board member of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce -- but were told they were not allowed.
If Greg Thomas and CALA cared about advancing what was in the best interest of West Virginia businesses, their business roundtables would have been open to every state business owner instead of a top-secret, private group of invitees. It’s easy to control the results when you refuse to admit anyone who does not already espouse your talking points. The same is true for CALA’s surveys since only those on CALA’s mailing list are questioned.
When you look at independent analyses, completed by organizations not on the corporate payroll like CALA, you get a very different picture about small business concerns and our legal climate.
For more than 30 years the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s leading advocacy organization for small businesses, has surveyed its members and issued its Small Business Problems and Priorities study. The cost of health insurance has been the leading concern for 25 years. Taxes and excessive government regulation are the other primary concerns.
Where does the “cost and frequency of lawsuits” rank in the 2012 study? It’s 71st of the 75 concerns—and dead last among those problems associated with the cost of doing business. While it ranked 65th in 2008 and 64th in 2004, it never even appeared in the study prior to 2004.
And what about our judicial climate? According to the data compiled by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), in 2010 West Virginia ranked 40th among the 50 states and Washington D. C. in the number of lawsuits filed per capita. A study done by Richard Brisbin and John Kilwein found that “since the 1980s West Virginia courts -- the trial court of general jurisdiction -- have not experienced a massive upsurge in non-family law civil litigation.” (The Future of the West Virginia Judiciary: Problems and Policy Options by Richard Brisbin, Jr. and John C. Kilwein, 2007).
The West Virginia Supreme Court’s annual statistical report shows that just 1,524 appeals were filed in 2012—a 25-year low. More than half those appeals were in cases that involved workers compensation, abuse and neglect and criminal appeals. According to the NCSC, our appeals have declined at a rate that is three times higher than the national average.
The truth is that Greg Thomas and CALA do not care about West Virginia’s economy and small businesses. They are willing to destroy our free market system and our constitutional rights in order to increase the profits of their billion-dollar corporate backers—even at the expense of state-owned businesses.
One need only to look at the 2006 case brought by Putnam County’s Eagle Research Corporation against the multinational Emerson corporation to see that. Emerson and its subsidiaries violated a contract with Eagle and illegally copied an Eagle computer system that was the best of its kind in the world. Eagle won its case in our circuit courts and the appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Emerson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court declined to hear the case and the West Virginia verdict was upheld. When Emerson filed its appeal with the Supreme Court, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a brief supporting Emerson’s case -- even though both Eagle and Emerson were U.S. Chamber members. The Chamber sided with the billion-dollar corporation, not the West Virginia small business. The U.S. Chamber and those big corporations are behind CALA. (Editor's Note: The West Virginia Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.)
It’s important that our courts can protect state businesses like Eagle -- but they won’t be able to do so if CALA and its corporate backers get their way. Reject CALA and stand with West Virginia businesses!
Layne is president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.