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Pride In Our Legal System

May 1st was Law Day, America's yearly recognition of and reflection upon the unique role our legal system plays in our democracy. Law Day was first proposed by ABA president Charles S. Rhyne in 1957. It was envisioned as a day to honor our strong heritage of liberty, justice and equality under law. A heritage traced back to the English noblemen who met in May 1215 to prepare the Magna Carta, signed by King John in June 1215.

President Eisenhower made the vision a reality, establishing "Law Day U.S.A." in 1958. In many places Law Day has become Law Week, as national associations are joined by state and local bar and trial lawyer associations, businesses and schools in conducting thousands of programs on America's legal system and the many freedoms and protections it provides us.

When we think of America's legal system, it seems we most often think of our criminal justice system and the protections it offers to hold criminals accountable while also shielding innocent citizens from governmental abuses. In some ways, the more remarkable part of our legal system may be our civil justice system and the contributions it and our jury system have made to consumer health and safety.

For over 200 years, the American justice system has been an important vehicle for positive social change. No matter their wealth or social standing, men and women across this country know that if they or loved ones are injured by another, they can hold the wrongdoer accountable.

Often they play a role in ensuring that no other family suffers the same tragedy, by forcing corporations to take unsafe products off the market.

Our justice system has resulted in improved health and safety for all


- The anti-miscarriage drug DES, the Dalkon Shield IUD and super-absorbent tampons that cause toxic shock are no longer on the market, ensuring that the health of women will never again be jeopardized by these products.

- Children’s pajamas that burst into flames no longer sit on store shelves. Unsafe cribs no longer strangle infants.

- Auto fuel systems no longer explode upon impact. Garage doors now have automatic reverse mechanisms, trucks have back- up beepers, farm tractors have roll bars -- the list goes on.

These changes have come about thanks to courageous and determined citizens, and the attorneys who represent them. Together, they have forced the negligent and reckless to account for their acts. Our legal system provides for justice -- through juries composed of ordinary citizens acting as the conscience of the community.

These days we often hear from corporate CEOs that product liability lawsuits are too costly. But, how much does improved safety really cost us? Product liability insurance costs passed on to American consumers amounts to about 26 cents out of a purchase of $100 for a product – one quarter of one percent – that’s $52 on a $20,000 vehicle. Consumers get a pretty good deal. What corporations are really concerned with is being held fully accountable and responsible for the harm they cause.

The importance and success of our civil justice system cannot be overlooked - it is under continual assault by corporate America. At a time when Americans increasingly sense an erosion of personal responsibility in society, our civil justice system remains the one institution that holds individuals, governments and corporations responsible for their behavior, and forces them to change their conduct for the better.

The enviable record amassed by America for consumer health and safety has made our justice system the envy of the world. No wonder Great Britain, whose "loser pays" attorneys fees rule keeps large numbers of poor and average-income people from seeking justice, is considering adopting American-type "contingency fee" arrangements as well as broadening the use of punitive damages. And, Japan has adopted tougher, American-style liability laws in order to keep dangerously defective products out of its market.

Just as civil juries can hold corporate powers accountable, they can also hold governments accountable. Our founding fathers recognized the importance of a jury in civil matters, enshrining that right in the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson considered trial by jury “as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” John Adams wrote that: “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds."

May 4th marked the anniversary of the shooting deaths and woundings of demonstrators at Kent State in 1970 by National Guard troops. In most nations, citizens would have no recourse. The victims and family members of Kent State were able to exercise their Seventh Amendment rights and obtain a monetary settlement, an apology and a commitment to change procedures so that there would not be a repeat of the mistakes made at Kent State.

We should be proud of our system, and be ever-vigilant that citizens never lose their essential rights. In America, justice belongs to people, not politicians; to juries, not insurance companies; to individuals, not governments; to injured workers and their families, not corporate CEOs.

This is Al Smith for the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.

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