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Parasitic Tort Lawyers

The trouble with trial lawyers

John Stossel
July 8, 2010

Tort lawyers lie. They say their product liability suits are good for us. But their lawsuits rarely make our lives better. They make lawyers and a few of their clients better off—but for the majority of us, they make life much worse.

Years back, as one of America's first consumer reporters, I'd avenge harmed consumers by bringing cameras to the offending business and confronting the crooks. My work warned others about the dangers in the marketplace but didn't do much for the victims.

So I thought about those personal injury lawyers. They could do more good—they could sue bad companies, force them to change, and get the victims money. I started referring hurt consumers to lawyers.

Imagine my shock when consumers called to say their lawyers took most of the money!

Even when the lawyers do help their clients, they hurt everyone else because fear of their lawsuits takes away many good things: Swimming pools, playgrounds, and gymnastics programs close because liability insurance is so expensive. Kids lose their favorite places to hang out in the summer.

More importantly, innovators dump potentially life-saving inventions. Companies that started work on a safer asbestos substitute, an AIDS vaccine, and a Lyme disease vaccine gave up the research because any work in those areas risked stirring up the lawyers. The liability risk was too great.

It's why I've come to think of lawyers the way I think about nuclear missiles. We need them to keep us safe. But we avoid using missiles because we understand the collateral damage they do. We ought to avoid lawyers for the same reason.

Look at health care. The lawyers claim they punish bad doctors and win compensation for injured patients, and their suits add "less than 2 percent to the cost." But there is another side to that story.

Dr. Manny Alvarez, chairman of obstetrics at Hackensack University Medical center, points out that 1 or 2 percent is just the direct cost. The indirect costs are far higher because suits force doctors and hospitals to practice defensive medicine and do unnecessary tests.

"If ... you walk in (an emergency room) with a headache, what do they do? They order a CAT scan, an MRI, you name it, " Alvarez said.

They do surgery on people who may not need it. That's safer for the doctor, although it's not safer for the patients.

Vice presidential candidate John Edwards made $40 million to $80 million—he won't say how much—pushing tort lawsuits, many of them related to cerebral palsy, which he attributed to doctors not doing C-sections.

What happened afterward? C-sections increased from 7 percent of all births to over 30 percent.

This is why I call lawyers "parasites." C-sections are bad for lots of reasons. They cost much more, they require a longer hospital stay, and they are riskier to the woman.

Have the extra C-sections at least reduced the rate of cerebral palsy? No. Not a bit. Turns out that, in most cases, the lawyers were wrong.

They were wrong about silicone breast implants, too. But they sure aren't giving the money back.

One of the most successful trial lawyers is Geoffrey Fieger. His law firm bills itself as the top personal injury firm in America.

"The higher ups in our society are protected really by the law, and the only thing an ordinary person can do is hire somebody like me, a warrior, to go after those higher-ups," he told me.

Fieger, like John Edwards, made millions on cerebral palsy cases. He denies that the C-section rate went up because doctors fear lawyers like him. He says doctors do C-sections to make money. Or because they are lazy. Of course, that makes me wonder why doctors weren't doing as many before the rash of lawsuits. Were doctors less lazy or less interested in money a few decades ago?

"I'm a trial lawyer," he said. "They turned the word trial lawyer into a four-letter word, and I'm telling you I'm the people's warrior, and I am proud to be an American trial lawyer."

And the money is good.

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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