The holidays are right around the corner--or so a recent lawsuit has reminded me.
With unpopular industries like tobacco and guns already under siege, an ambitious group of personal injury lawyers needed a fresh victim. They found one ripe for demonizing... those evil, manipulative, child-targeting, life-endangering manufacturers we all know and loath... the toy makers.
Forbes magazine recently reported that a handful of leading toy manufacturers and distributors were accused of violating several obscure antitrust laws in a class-action brought on behalf of millions of consumers.
Rather than pay millions of dollars to defend themselves in court, the defendants agreed to pay $56.8 million to settle the case.
Most of the money went to attorneys general in 44 states. The companies also agreed to ship a generous amount of toys to the U.S. Marine Corps "Toys for Tots" program. The personal-injury lawyers walked off with $3.25 million.
So what about the millions of consumers on whose behalf the class-action originally was filed? The ones who were supposed to be personally injured.
What did they get?
Not even Bob Crachit's lump of coal. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Absolute zero. Toy consumers-the only set of victims, according to the lawyers-were excluded from the settlement "due to the impracticability of identifying all individual toy purchasers during the relevant time period."
The entire exercise, you see, had nothing to do with indemnifying wronged parties and everything to do with filling the coffers of some aspiring politicians and the Swiss bank accounts of well-to-do lawyers.
Don't take my word for it. If you want to read more about how the personal injury lawyers got rich and the toy buyers got shafted, get on the Internet and log on to:
All this leads me to repeat what my father once howled at Halloween time, "Momma, don't let our kids dress up as personal injury lawyers."
Sugar-coated litigation, fattening contingency fees, enticing ads and ghoulish political contributions are scary, Dad pointed out, but they're not likely to persuade many people to invite the kids into their living rooms.
As demonstrated in the toy manufacturers fiasco, personal injury lawyers love to file what I like to refer to as sugar-coated litigation–sweet on the outside, but bitter on the inside.
Many plaintiffs' attorneys like to pretend that their litigation is for the general good, helps consumers and makes companies act in a more appropriate manner. That's the sweet part.
The bitter part soon follows. Frivolous litigation invariably jacks up the prices we pay for a wide array of goods and services, slams the door on product innovation, and often leaves consumers out in the cold.
As the case of the evil toy manufacturers demonstrates, most consumers-the so- called victims on whose behalf trial lawyers file their many cases-never benefit, financially or otherwise.
In the recently settled tobacco litigation, for instance, no consumer received a dime from the tobacco industry or the government, while almost all of the trial lawyers walked off with millions, and some pocketed a cool billion.
In numerous other recent cases, the personal injury lawyers made enough loot to walk out of the courtroom and purchase oceangoing yachts or private jets. In several cases, they bought not just private jets, but private landing strips as well. The so-called victims, on the other hand, often end up with things like discount coupons good for 25 percent off on their next purchase of breakfast cereal.
The personal injury lawyers who file these ridiculous cases have been able to stymie all efforts to reform our increasingly corrupt civil justice system by simply "tithing" to campaign contribution funds. That money--millions all told--is then divvied up among the trial lawyers' buddies on Capitol Hill and in various state legislatures.
These personal injury lawyers also kick in additional millions on research and brainstorming meetings that help identify new sets of victims they can "befriend."
Unfortunately, this ghoulish cycle likely will continue long after the current round of fall and winter holidays unless Americans decide to do something about it.
Some groups around the country-most noticeably, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse-already are working hard at the grass-root levels to make sure consumers in class-action don't wind up with a stick of licorice while lawyers walk away with trucks full of chocolate truffles.
Ratliff is executive director of Metroplex Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse
2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: sosueme@ • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267