Before I started practicing law twenty years ago as a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer, I worked as Public Affairs Counsel (lobbyist) and Media Spokesperson for the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys. MATA is the state bar association for plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers (lawyers who represent injury victims who have been harmed due to someone else’s negligence,) and is the state affiliate of the American Association for Justice. Here is where this story gets a little interesting: The AAJ used to be known for many, many years as the “American Association of Trial Lawyers of America” – ATLA – but several years ago, they changed their name to the “American Association for Justice”, after decades of being widely known as ATLA. Care to take a guess why the name change?
My readers who follow the issue of tort reform will know the answer. And that answer, quite sadly, is this: Polls and study groups had indicated that the public image of plaintiffs’ trial lawyers (or tort lawyers,) had sunk so low in the public’s mind, that ATLA felt that they needed to take the words “trial lawyers” out of their name. (A disclaimer: I do not speak here for the AAJ, and I do not know for an indisputable “fact” that this was the reason the association changed its name, but most plaintiffs’ trial lawyers would privately tell you, that was the reason.) And prey tell, why had the public’s perception and public opinion of trial lawyers reportedly sunk so low as to prompt this name change? Is what the members of my profession do so un-admired, so low, that a national bar association would want to change its name to take out the words “trial lawyers”? Is what we as trial lawyers do in helping injury victims recover a fair measure of compensation and justice from the negligent party who caused their injuries so shameful, so disreputable? Is fighting insurance companies who would be only too glad to offer someone who has been injured, crumbs for financial compensation, so distasteful?
The answer to all these questions is, obviously, a resounding “No.” So why, then, has the perception of a once-admired and esteemed profession been so defamed, so damaged? The answer comes down to three words: liability insurance companies. More accurately, two words: tort reform. You see, for almost every damages award or settlement that is paid in a personal injury or tort case, there is an insurance company that pays that award or settlement amount on behalf of the defendant that is found to be responsible (legally liable) for those damages. Whether the case involves a Massachusetts motor vehicle accident, a premises liability, or a medical malpractice case, 99% of the time, an insurance company – who has been paid premiums by the defendant (its policyholder) to provide that very coverage – pays the award or settlement. And guess what? Despite the fact that liability insurance companies are in business to do just that – pay for damages when their insured negligently harms someone – they don’t like paying out money. Of course, these are the very companies, like AIG, that took billions and billions of taxpayers’ dollars in bailout money.
So, what do you when you’re the liability insurance industry (comprised of companies like AIG,) and you don’t like paying for the negligent acts of your customers? Well, one way is to adopt an aggressive trial approach and combative legal strategy toward every personal injury claim that comes before you, and refuse to pay almost anything but the smallest sum, but that’s a piecemeal approach. No, the liability insurance industry knew that a much larger-scale attack would be needed to pad their profits even more – a strategy that wouldn’t just address cases on an individual basis – but on a societal, national level.
Enter the concept and campaign for “tort reform”. What’s that? A coordinated, sophisticated, public relations misinformation campaign, specifically designed to convince all manner of people and business sectors that the reason their insurance premiums are so high, is “frivolous lawsuits”, “runaway jury verdicts” and “greedy tort lawyers.” The objective: Stoke public anger toward tort lawyers. Make every car & motor vehicle owner, every home owner, every municipality, every doctor, every hospital, every charity, every business from a mom-and-pop store to Microsoft Corporation, think that their high insurance premiums are due to a “lawsuit crisis.” Bring this misinformation and smear campaign to such a fever pitch that even the mention of the words “trial lawyer” will prompt resentment and distaste.
And that’s why such a distinguished bar association like ATLA, apparently felt it was forced to change its name, taking out the words “trial lawyers.”
As a Massachusetts personal injury lawyer who used to specialize in responding to the media about this misinformation, I can assure you that this campaign has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest lies perpetrated on the American public in decades, and I’ll discuss ‘Exhibit A’ in that evidence file, in my next post.