Those Wicked Lawyers

'Citizens' group' braying for legal reform is really a front for big tobacco.

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Reconstruction of a Man Gordon Square Theatre, 6409 Detroit Avenue 8 p.m. on Friday, September 29, and Saturday, September 30. Admission is free.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 28, Cleveland Public Theatre will host a benefit for Y-Haven Players and CPT's Outreach Program that includes dinner, a silent auction, and a special preview performance of the play. Admission is $50. Call 216-631-2727.

Q: What do lawyers and sperm have in common?
A: One in three million has a chance of becoming a human being.

Pardon Ohio Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse for not laughing at that joke. The group doesn't find abuses of the legal system so funny. OCALA is airing radio ads (heard locally on WTAM-AM/1100) that depict the courts as feeding troughs for pigs in three-piece suits. The message: Them crooked lawyers are gouging businesses, consumers, and taxpayers. Enough is enough!

OCALA features itself as a scrappy, concerned citizens' group. Dana Smith, the executive director, claims his outfit is a "statewide, grassroots, nonpartisan" organization that educates the public about abuses of the legal system. Most of OCALA's 6,000 members, he says, are small business owners.

But if OCALA is "grassroots," Microsoft is a little software company. Ohio Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is, in fact, part of a sophisticated national campaign subsidized by large corporations to transform American tort law. The goal: insulate corporations from lawsuits.

While the public face of these groups is the shop owner and the family doctor, CALAs around the country are indirectly funded by the likes of Philip Morris, Dow Chemical, and Nationwide Insurance. CALAs run a street campaign designed by the American Tort Reform Association, a coalition of more than 300 companies and trade associations, to overhaul civil liability laws. Twenty-seven CALAs operate around the country. Smith says the CALAs have "no official ties" to each other, yet their campaigns and promotional materials are virtually identical. CALAs even share the same 1-800 number reception center. "We have a similar message," says Don Wolfe, head of the Silicon Valley CALA. "When a lot of different people go to a doctor for a headache, the doctors give them an aspirin, and the doctors are not in collusion."

By washing the money through the Tort Reform Association, corporations leave few stains on these pseudo-citizens' groups. Big tobacco has taken advantage of the cloak. In 1995, the industry gave the Tort Reform Association $5.5 million -- more than half the ATRA's budget, according to the Center for Justice & Democracy and Public Citizen.

Columbus dentist David G. Rummel, OCALA's chairman, says his concern for judicial reform is more personal than professional. "I feel that there is a problem in the courts and how they handle lawsuits, and that's how I got involved." Asked to describe OCALA's mission, Dr. Rummel says, "Basically, what we do is gather information and disseminate it to the public."

But for a board chairman, Dr. Rummel is rather clueless about OCALA's activities. He says the five-member board meets just four times a year. He was unable to say precisely what OCALA's budget is: "I don't know, maybe $100,000-$200,000 a year, those kind of numbers." Smith says the group operates on a "shoestring" budget, but wouldn't offer a precise figure.

Though it claims neither to endorse nor deprecate candidates, OCALA is targeting the Ohio Supreme Court. The so-called Gang of Four--who voted to declare the state's mechanism for school funding unconstitutional and threw out the pro-business law that restricts civil-suit damages--holds a slim majority on the seven-justice court.

OCALA alleges that 84 percent of Gang of Four Justice Alice Robie Resnick's campaign contributions come from trial lawyers. Allow yourself a moment to savor the irony of a corporate front bemoaning the grime left on government by campaign donations.

CALAs claim that frivolous lawsuits, such as the infamous case of the McDonald's cup of coffee, cost every American a "tort tax" of $1,200 a year. Indeed, it is difficult to muster any love for trial lawyers. But an Ohio State Law Journal study of product liability and medical malpractice suits over 12 years in Franklin County shows that plaintiffs rarely won, compensatory damages were modest, and punitive damages were nonexistent.

Richard Mason, the head of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, looks to today's headlines for reason to reject CALA's prefab populism. "Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is supported by companies like Firestone that don't want to be held accountable when their mistakes hurt or kill people," he says.

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