Last week, a truck driver pleaded guilty to 15 counts of falsifying his log books to conceal that he was driving in excess of the lawful number of allowable driving hours without the required rest period. On January 2009, the night before a fatal accident, the trucker claimed he was in a sleeper berth when he was actually on the road. He was driving his rig with faulty brakes on the morning of January 23 when his rig slammed into a stopped line of traffic, killing the driver of a Infiniti and seriously injuring the front seat passenger. The truck driver pleaded guilty of vehicular homicide and served three months in prison.
If that wasn’t bad enough, when investigators inspected the rig following the fatal accident, all of the truck’s 10 brakes were badly worn, and the left front brakes were dangerously thin. Many brakes showed signs of overheating, scoring and were the wrong size. The driver claimed days before the fatal accident, he called his boss from the road complaining he had trouble getting the rig to stop when he applied the brakes, but the owner allegedly urged him to continue on and resort to using the emergency brake to slow the vehicle; he knowingly ordered the truck driver to drive cross country with defective brakes. Reports showed that owner repeatedly put off having the truck’s failing brakes replaced after the vehicle had been stopped and cited for safety violations in several states. The truck’s owner eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 ½ months to 23 months in prison. Additionally, an auto service owner admitted selling the truckers inspection stickers without examining the defective vehicle; he was sentenced to three to 23 months in jail. The DA said if an inspection had been performed the truck would not have been road worthy. All three men are responsible for putting an 80,000-pound lethal weapon on the roads.
Some will argue that justice was served; tell that to the deceased victim’s family and the passenger who suffered a broken back, broken ribs, a broken nose, a punctured lung, damage to one eye and the loss of part of an ear. Even if these victims file a lawsuit, and even if they are eventually compensated, does this replace/repair the loss of a loved one? This truck never should have been on the road; this accident should never have happened. These men, these business owners; these are the despicable types that cry “lawsuit abuse” at the drop of a hat. These are the people that whine that they were put out of business by “lawsuit abuse”. They appear in “faces of lawsuit abuse” videos; they blame everyone, everyone but themselves, the guilty, the ones who were criminally negligent. Lawsuits don’t put companies out of business; carelessness and intentional wrong-doing do. To wrongdoers – the people who cause fatal accidents to occur- it is far cheaper to risk a fatal accident than to fix the problem. When they are held accountable, they scream “lawsuit abuse”. They have no regard human life or safety; they care only about one thing: profits. So, why is their greed "O.K." and compensation for seriously injured/deceased accident victims "greedy"? Isn’t that backwards?
We can trust our legal system to sort out the frivolous lawsuits from the meritorious. Attorneys have neither the time nor the money to file frivolous lawsuits; they don’t want or need a reputation for bringing frivolous lawsuits. In fact, this term: “frivolous lawsuit", is most often deliberately misused:
· If big business disagrees with your successful lawsuit and doesn’t wish to accept responsibility or pay the damages ordered, it must be “frivolous”
· If your lawsuit is successful, but too successful and big business is willing to pay damages but not at the high level ordered, it must be “frivolous”
· If the case is given a catchy name by big business and the real facts and circumstances are hidden from the public (see the “McDonald’s” coffee” case), it must be “frivolous”
· If a case goes to trial and fails; if a plaintiff does not prevail, if a jury was not sufficiently convinced by the evidence presented, it must be “frivolous” (never mind all the “frivolous defenses” proffered by insurance companies and defense attorneys all over the country in an attempt to “delay, deny, confuse and refuse”)
If you are looking for a simple way to determine that “frivolous lawsuits” and “lawsuit abuse” are myths advanced by greedy corporations to confuse the public, look at the solutions to the “problem” that is always offered by the business community: Big Business always suggests damages caps, a restriction on the total amount a victim can collect. But why would a “frivolous lawsuit” require a damages cap? By definition, it is worthless. The remedy should be punishment to the attorney who brings a worthless case, right? Guess what? That remedy already rests within the sound discretion of the judge that presided over the lawsuit!
Lawsuits are a measured attempt at reasonable compensation for catastrophic injury; they are the only way for a victim to seek redress for the damages inflicted, the only way to right a wrong. If greedy corporations and their insurance companies would ensure that meritorious claims are promptly and fairly resolved, plaintiffs would not have to go to court.
Tort reform is an attempt to protect corporations from the consequences of their own wrongdoing. These corporate wrongdoers blame others for their negligence; for their criminal acts. They pour in millions of dollars in profits or premiums into tort reform lobbying efforts rather than safety improvements or victim compensation. These reprehensible corporations (calling themselves “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse”) lobby for caps on damages for serious injuries, legal immunities for their industries, and the elimination of punitive damages.
For the victims of our criminal driver and owner in the highlighted case, Pennsylvania has consistently prohibited damages caps; these victims are “lucky” (at least in the context of “tort reform”). This truck driver was traveling across the country. What if the accident happened elsewhere, after the driver reported the braking problem? What if it had happened in a state that arbitrarily caps damages? Injuries/death are devastating, no matter what state they occur in. Further, similar injuries may have different consequences to different people. We are not the same; we don’t pain and suffer the same. Damages are as devastating to victims in your state as they are in mine; why does location matter? The bottom line is that damages caps are just another way of punishing an already damaged victim, over and over again, while given perpetrators a free pass for the sake of “business”.
Corporate interest groups call themselves “citizens” and use buzzwords like “frivolous”, “lawsuit abuse”, and “jackpot justice” to trivialize serious or fatal injuries, in an attempt to limit citizen access to the courts. And because the average person has never been an injury victim, we are falling for the charade and letting them run roughshod over our constitutional rights.
Tort reform has never about fixing a “broken” justice system; it has always been about protecting greedy corporations and insurance companies from paying full and fair compensation. It has never been about keeping “greedy lawyers” from filing frivolous lawsuits; it has always been about keeping those who are severely injured out of the court system and away from the public eye. Is that the American way? Is this the justice you would want for an injured friend or loved one? Any of us are just one incident, one moment, one second from being a statistic, a catastrophically injured, under-compensated accident victim who must rely on some type of government assistance to get by. Don’t sacrifice your rights; find out where your elected officials stand on these issues. If they stand with the corporations and the tort reformers, throw the bums out! Exercising our rights can put an end to the deceptive corporate takeover of our precious civil justice system.
Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.