CHARLESTON – A statewide legal reform group is celebrating Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week, but a group for trial lawyers denounced it as another effort to take away West Virginians’ right to a jury trial.
On Oct. 3, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse announced the start of its annual Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week, when they show “why lawsuit abuse hurts West Virginians and how passing much-needed lawsuit reforms can help improve West Virginia’s economic outlook” as well as “highlight personal injury lawyer tactics and their massive level of political spending.”
“Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week is about raising awareness about the devastation that lawsuit abuse causes in our communities,” WV CALA Executive Director Roman Stauffer said. “When greedy personal injury lawyers abuse our legal system for their personal enrichment, we all pay, and we all lose.
“We will be highlighting the aggressive and often misleading recruitment tactics that some personal injury lawyers use and also the hundreds of thousands of dollars some millionaire personal injury lawyers are spending on candidates who support their lawsuit greed driven political agenda.”
Stauffer said small businesses often are the target of meritless, abusive lawsuits.
“These can be very costly, and often result in a business closing its doors and letting its employees go,” he said. “According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, approximately seven in 10 small business owners say that a lawsuit would force them to reduce benefits for employees or hold back on hiring.”
Stauffer called it a vicious cycle.
“Personal injury lawyers use aggressive and questionable tactics to recruit lawsuit participants,” Stauffer said. “They file meritless lawsuits with the hopes of hitting the lawsuit jackpot. They use their lawsuit riches to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence the political process supporting candidates who support their ‘sue and settle’ agenda.”
Meanwhile, the West Virginia Association for Justice said WV CALA is a “corporate shill” that “continues to mislead West Virginians” about the state’s legal climate.
"Since the Bill of Rights became law, American citizens have had the right to trial by jury in civil courts,” WVAJ President Jane Peak told The West Virginia Record. “Our civil courts are the one place where every citizen is equal to the biggest corporations, the most powerful CEOs and even the government itself.
“Every West Virginian needs to demand to know why CALA wants to take that away and why the front group is lying to us to do it.”
Peak said that’s as simple as following the money trail.
“The truth is that CALA wants to trick you into giving up your constitutional rights because the CEOs who sign their checks want to increase their profits at our expense,” she said. “Its only concern is increasing the profits of the out-of-state corporations that fund it, and it’s willing to say or do anything to make that happen."
The WVAJ says the claims WV CALA makes simply aren’t true, and it cites data from the National Center for State Courts and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
According to the National Center for State Courts, West Virginia always has ranked in the bottom 25 percent for the number of civil cases filed based on population, and the state's case filings have declined more than 10 percent since 2010. At the same time, appeals to the West Virginia Supreme Court have declined 60 percent, a rate four times the national average.
And according to an August 2016 National Federation of Independent Businesses study, the “threat of lawsuits” ranks last among problems associated with business costs. The independent study ranked a total of 75 identified concerns. "Threat of lawsuits" ranked 68th out of the 75 concerns.
“West Virginians should know the truth about our justice system and the critical role it plays in protecting the rights of our small business owners,” Peak said. “Our civil courts protect state-owned businesses when they have been wronged by billion-dollar national and international corporations.
“Our courts are the only place where a locally-owned business is equal to the world’s biggest and richest corporations. CALA doesn't care about protecting those business owners and the jobs they provide. CALA wants to leave them powerless against its corporate funders, too,”
The WVAJ also discounts CALA itself.
“While CALA claims to be a ‘citizens’ organization, it is a front group created by the Washington, D.C., PR firm APCO Worldwide,” Peak said. “According to the Center for Justice and Democracy, CALAs ‘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.’
“Since its inception in 1994, WV CALA has refused to answer all questions regarding its funding.”