Come as you are

By The West Virginia Record | Apr 14, 2006

Maybe they misread the invitation, but our state's great debate over the fairness and quality of its justice system wasn't supposed to be a masquerade party.

The cynics among us will say it's likely the West Virginia trial lawyers, dressed up and running radio ads these days as the righteous-sounding "Consumer Protection Alliance," made its disguise by conscious choice. Less ambiguous handles like the "Coalition for Jackpot Justice" or the "Alliance for Lawyer Contingency Fees" don't quite have the right working man's ring.

Call it like clockwork. When the going gets tough for trial lawyers, the trial lawyers get melodramatic. Everyone's a victim after all, aren't they?

Not that the cause of "consumer protection" is some slam dunk. To be sure, we're all consumers. And we all like the idea of being "protected." But what exactly is a "consumer protector"? Such a figment demands using one's imagination.

"Give me $200 each, for your own protection. Tell your friends I don't want a lot. Just enough to wet my beak," said Don Fanucci of the vaunted "Black Hand" in "The Godfather II."

Fanucci, as went the story, offered protection to immigrant business owners in New York City. He even wore a cape, though the "protected" would hardly describe him as a superhero.

Call Fanucci the first image that comes to mind when someone in a slick suit purports to be "fighting for us."

The latter-day model might be Charleston lawyer Dante DiTrapano, whose firm "wet its beak" to the tune of almost $1 million for "protecting" West Virginians from drug maker Purdue Pharma. Their pain killer pills were accidentially being crushed and snorted by high-happy pleasure seekers.

Those non-drug users among us may not feel safer for DiTrapano's protective efforts, but they are. Really. Just trust him.

Meanwhile on the other side, the business community has squared up in the center of the ring to make its case. Trial lawyers charge that these West Virginia companies arguing for tort reform have the insidious goal of earning profits, as if there were something wrong with that.

Ironically, corporate profits -- the whole point of capitalism -- are a reward due businesses that please consumers. They also fund not just the innovation that constantly raises our standard of living but, more elementally, our jobs, governments, schools, health care, and retirement plans. From such a record, there is plenty to boast and nothing to hide.

It's easy to understand why trial lawyers wouldn't want the public to know their own take. When earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for just a few hours of strong-armed legal threats, you try to keep it like a secret.

We don't begrudge the trial lawyers their own profits. But for West Virginians' sake, they should come to the dialogue sans the populist costume.

It's hard to hear what they're really saying beneath the mask and cape.

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