Up in smoke

Columnist : Albert Paschall

 As I regularly cruise the 84.1 miles of the Pennsylvania turnpike between the Valley Forge interchange and the Harrisburg exit boredom is my worst enemy. It caught up to me during last week’s trip. Just above the speed limit with the CD player blaring and coffee nestled in the cup holder next to my lap, talking on the car phone while trying to light a cigarette I lost site of the road. Suddenly the tires wailed against the rumble strip and I screeched to a halt inches from the guardrail. Bad luck prevailing the car stopped just in time to miss the jackpot.

     Liability is all the rage now. Had I hit the guardrail I would have suffered at least emotional scars, if not grievous bodily injury, even death. It would have easy to pick the deep pockets clean. The auto company that made the car with the engine that tempted me to exceed the speed limit gets the same subpoena as the maker of the CD player. After all the CD player caused a distraction while making the call on the cellular phone. The phone shouldn’t have been there in the first place, so whoever invented that gets to go to the grand jury. The coffee spilled all over the place, though it wasn’t hot enough to burn me, it’s likely that it didn’t have enough caffeine to keep me going. Somebody has to pay for that, too. For my attorneys it would be full employment going, after everybody from the guy who grew the coffee beans to the has-been ‘70s band playing on the CD. It would have been a beauty of a bundled liability suit, and my lawyers and me would have stuck gold.

     Last November the American Tobacco companies paved the way for massive industry wide liability damages by settling in advance with 46 states and the Federal Government, all future liability for tobacco related health claims. Pledging $206 billion over the next 25 years, big tobacco paved the way for the governments to drive an entire industry into submission of huge settlements using major league legal muscle and vague law powered by the taxpayers bottomless check book. But with lawyers from 46 states and the United States Department of Justice chasing your business quick settlement is the smart money. Even if the settlement has no credibility and more zeroes at the end of it than most government revenue agents can count.

     Since its earliest days the Clinton administration has targeted the tobacco industry, paving a legal highway that is fraught with risk to the American economy and is unprecedented in our judicial heritage. Just in the last sixty days that strategy has cost the shareholders of industry leader Philip Morris Tobacco more than $150. million in judgments. Largely by jury award, the fertile field of tobacco liability law has attracted the most tenacious of lawyers in a politically charged issue. In Pennsylvania two of the states largest law firms will split $50. million. A mere 3% of the $11.3 billion the state is expected to receive.

     If followed to the extreme, as legal precedents against business usually do, any industry that manufactures a product with any potential hazard is now open to broadsides from any lawyer capable of filing a brief. In Pennsylvania anybody with $250. can do that and opportunities abound. People get injured and killed in cars every day so put the brakes on the auto manufacturers in court. The Federal government claims 40% of Americans are overweight, so why not scale down the bakeries, sugar refineries and fast food joints that live off the fat of the land. Supposedly 1/3 of us suffer from some form of hypertension, get the coffee growers, refineries even the neighborhood cappuccino joints with all the energy the government can muster. 100% of us will eventually die and in our sorry state we could be exploited by the Funeral Home industry. Recent tobacco lawsuits prove that dead people can sue and win so let’s bury the undertakers with our lawyers. But in all of this don’t hold anybody responsible for their own irresponsibility, their own decisions, or their own lives.

     The danger of the precedent of the tobacco settlement is that it has no end. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and as the tobacco manufacturers cave that liability sidewalk is a lot hotter for American industry. America v. Tobacco sets the stage for the argument that people can’t make adult decisions. This pitiful premise has become the precedent for the nation’s liability law. That laziness will have a cost some day, as personal responsibility goes up in smoke.