Response to Bono: Why is the world watching?

Stan Anderson Sep. 9, 2004, 12:02pm

There is one thing on which we can agree with Mr. Bono’s editorial [of last week] – the American system of justice is indeed the best in the world.

But Mr. Bono and his fellow lawyers are trying to ruin that by turning Madison County – and a number of other class action “magnet courts” – into an international joke.

What Madison County resident could ever have imagined that this small county would make it into The Financial Times, the Economist and other European periodicals?

Reporters in these and other newspapers and magazines have all written about Madison County – not to praise the American judicial system at work but to condemn the “jackpot justice” practiced here. Is this the kind of notoriety that Madison County citizens want?

Mr. Bono focuses most of the attacks in his column on a straw man – proposed caps in some states on certain forms of jury awards. But none of the attention that Madison County has been getting has anything to do with Madison County juries or jury awards.

Rather, the source of the international outcry over Madison County courts is entirely based on how those courts handle class actions and mass tort cases that have little or no relationship to Madison County.

And that outcry is no surprise.

Over the past few years, Madison County courts have consistently failed to respect basic class certification and due process requirements, they have ignored basic principles of federalism in addressing nationwide class actions, they have certified nationwide and statewide class actions at a drop of the hat, and they have routinely approved settlements that provide plaintiffs' attorneys with large fees but leave consumers with nothing.

In addition, Mr. Bono misrepresents the nature of the class action reform efforts.

A substantial portion of Mr. Bono’s column is devoted to a justified celebration of the American civil justice system and the fundamental right of every American to make his case to a jury of his peers.

The primary class action reform effort, the Class Action Fairness Act, does not, however, interfere with either of those principles in any way. Rather, it merely would transfer large interstate class actions from state to federal court.

And unlike the typical class action plaintiffs in Madison County, consumers in federal class actions often receive real compensation when their claims settle. Thus, far from denying consumers their day in court, the class action reform effort makes it more likely that Madison County consumers will receive an actual recovery on their claims.

Mr. Bono suggests that class actions pit innocent consumers against evil corporations. In fact, the “evil” corporations that plaintiffs’ lawyers are suing are usually shareholder-owned – in other words, they are owned by Madison County residents and other consumers throughout the country through mutual funds and 401(k)s.

Thus, when consumers supposedly prevail in a class action, what that really means is that the lawyers are taking the consumers’ money (in their role as shareholders) and graciously giving it to themselves. Consumers are left with coupons that few will ever use, and the company ends up either raising prices or loses profits – either way, American consumers lose.

Mr. Bono’s self-righteous defense of the Madison County courts distorts the facts and ignores the realities of what is happening in this county. He focuses on the fact that only one class action has gone to trial in Madison County and provides this as evidence that there is no class action problem in county courts.

But as a former county judge, Mr. Bono is well aware that class actions rarely go to trial.

Rather than risk an exponentially large, possibly company-destroying judgment, corporations usually settle after a class is certified against them, even if the claims against them are entirely without merit. And unfortunately, those settlements in Madison County typically benefit the lawyers involved, but nobody else.

Mr. Bono concluded his column by stating that he hopes that justice will remain available in Madison County. But the abusive class action settlements of the past few years have been anything but just for consumers and taxpayers.

Rather than providing a forum where consumers can seek recovery for their actual injuries, the Madison County courts have become a national haven for plaintiffs’ attorneys to attempt to make a quick buck at consumers’ expense.

We agree with Mr. Bono’s hope that Madison County residents who are in need of justice will be able to find it in the American legal system. But without significant reform, they will not find it in Madison County.

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