When Americans think of their justice system, they may envision the heroic small town lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or Perry Mason. Or the countless other movies, TV series,
and high school civics textbooks that depict the U.S. justice system as a pillar of American society.
Unfortunately, this glorified image is at odds with today’s reality. In too many areas, the U.S. justice system is becoming less a means for delivering justice and more a profit center for outside parties—less Atticus Finch and more Gordon Gekko, the famous anti-hero from the Wall Street movies.
That’s where the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) comes in. For 16 years, ILR has been waging an entrenched battle against plaintiffs’ lawyers who are trying to suck the vitality out of companies large and small—and the economy.
“Our comprehensive program aims to advance meaningful, substantive reforms while raising public awareness of the costs of our lawsuit system,” says ILR President Lisa Rickard, who leads a 25-person team of legal, strategic, and communications professionals.
Today, ILR is the nation’s leading legal reform advocacy group and can point to a number of significant victories.
Research, Campaigns Lead to Successes
Integral to ILR’s mission is groundbreaking research on pressing legal issues that provides substantive support for advocacy efforts at the state, federal, and international levels. Last year alone, ILR released 16 papers on issues such as emerging litigation trends, class actions, attorney general enforcement, and the False Claims Act. ILR also works with the respected survey firm Harris Interactive to periodically release a ranking of state legal climates.
ILR’s comprehensive legal reform campaigns at the state level have proven particularly effective. For example, landmark legal reforms in Mississippi helped spur an increase in business investment and a large drop in medical liability costs for doctors. In just the last four years, more than 15 states—including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—have passed reforms to curb out-of-control judgments, reject improper theories of liability, and rein in abuses by plaintiffs’ lawyers, state attorneys general, and outside litigation funders.
ILR has also advanced many reforms at the federal level. One of the most important legal reforms of the past decade—the Class Action Fairness Act—was signed into law by President George W.
Bush in 2005 and was the culmination of a five-year effort by ILR. This bipartisan law helped reform America’s out-of-control class action lawsuit system by moving many cases from plaintiff-friendly state courts to more neutral federal courts.
While political gridlock in Washington has slowed some legal reform efforts at the federal level, Congress is currently considering a number of proposals that would help restore balance to America’s legal system. Among these are the Fairness in Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act (H.R. 982/S. 2319), targeting abusive asbestos claims against businesses, and the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (H.R. 2655/S. 1288), requiring mandatory sanctions against lawyers for filing frivolous litigation. Both measures passed the House in 2013.
In addition, ILR fights regulations and enforcement practices by executive branch agencies, including the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, that increase the lawsuit burden on the business community.
Lawsuit Abuse at Home and Abroad
ILR is increasingly active in the international arena, leading the Coalition to Curb Global Forum Shopping, which seeks to stop the importation of foreign lawsuits to U.S. courts and stem the export of U.S.-style litigation features to other countries. One of its most recent reports examines the potential consequences of new and proposed laws in 13 Latin American countries that would expand class action lawsuits.
Even with all of ILR’s successes, lawsuit abuse ranks among the costliest expenses for American business. For small businesses alone, the tort system costs $105 billion per year. Recognizing this, a number of ILR initiatives have focused on small and midsize businesses. In 2007, ILR launched FacesOfLawsuitAbuse.org, a first-of-its-kind public awareness campaign featuring individuals who have been victimized by lawsuit abuse. The website features videos of everyday people who have been the targets of unfair lawsuits and provides other lawsuit victims with the opportunity to share their stories. Since its launch, FacesOfLawsuitAbuse.org has had more than 24 million video views.
“It’s important that Americans understand that lawsuit abuse hurts their families, their neighbors, and the small businesses in their communities,” Rickard says. “Americans need to know that there are millions of people directly affected by frivolous lawsuits, and that it’s time to change our lawsuit culture. This campaign is not only about showing stories of people hurt by lawsuit abuse, but it’s about giving people the power to stand up and speak out.”