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American Tort Reform Association uses threat of label to blackmail lawmakers

From the Parkersburg News and Sentinel:

For more than 10 years now the American Tort Reform Association, a front group bankrolled by America’s most powerful and wealthy CEOs, has attacked West Virginia with its widely discredited “Judicial Hellhole” report. It’s been debunked by everyone from the media to legal experts as nothing more than an annual publicity stunt. In 2005, it was even pointed out to ATRA that its attack on West Virginia’s courts was based on a lawsuit that was never filed here.  ATRA’s response? So what?

Facts don’t matter to ATRA — they never have, and they never will. Its goal was never to provide an accurate assessment of a state’s civil justice system. As Elizabeth Thornburg stated in “Judicial Hellholes, Lawsuit Climates and Bad Social Science,”published in West Virginia Law Review, “The explicit goal [of the Hellhole Report] is to appeal to the public as voters, to scare politicians into making pro-defendant changes to the law in order to make the label go away … Judicial Hellholes are selected in whatever way suits ATRA’s political goals. The choice is not based on research into the actual conditions of the courts.”

To fund this public relations effort, ATRA has received millions from corporate CEOs who want to rig our justice system. As Thornburg pointed out, they want our legislators to “make law that will favor repeat corporate defendants and their insurers.”Such laws limit their accountability and allow them to increase their profits at our expense. Until state lawmakers give them what they want, ATRA and the CEOs attack you and call you a “hellhole.” What’s the difference between what ATRA is doing and blackmail or extortion? The only one I can see is that if a person is guilty of criminal blackmail, that person would go to jail. If you’re ATRA and millionaire CEOs making the threat, you get what you want and then get praised publicly for stopping the attack. It’s ridiculous.

That’s the case now in West Virginia. Personal responsibility is one of our core American values. If you harm someone, you pay the price for that. Instead of protecting key laws that did just that, West Virginia legislators weakened them or took them away altogether. If those responsible don’t have to pay, then who does? The rest of us, which violates our economic freedom! The costs are passed on to taxpayers, particularly if those harmed are senior citizens or veterans. It also hurts our free market economy because those costs are also passed on to other businesses through increased government regulation and fees. Instead of rewarding good behavior while punishing bad behavior, both are now treated the same. In addition to getting wrongdoers off the hook, these changes also limit our ability to hold even the government accountable when our individual liberties are restricted or taken away. We’re left powerless while CEOs get rich at the expense of our bank accounts and our rights. It’s wrong, and not something any West Virginian should be celebrating.

The truth is that ATRA and the CEOs hiding behind it don’t care that it lied to us, our lawmakers and our media. They don’t care about West Virginia’s economy or growing West Virginia jobs. All that mattered was lining their pockets at our expense. They get richer, and we’re left holding the bag.

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Jane E. Peak is the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice and an attorney in the Morgantown firm of Allan N. Karlin and Associates.

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