The usual suspects

John J. Hopkins Jan. 2, 2005, 4:48am

“Major Strasser’s been shot.... Round up the usual suspects."

That line from the classic “Casablanca,” is familiar to all movie buffs. In fact, it forms the title of an Oscar-winning film starring Kevin Spacey.

Its style notwithstanding, the phrase bespeaks an attitude that says we know who is guilty without investigation--evidence be damned. Unfortunately, such an attitude is not confined to World War II, in Vichy, France. Allow me to explain.

For the second year in a row, our little county is the white-hot center for Tort Reform, at least according to the Washington D.C.-based American Tort Reform Association (ATRA).

ATRA has once again labeled Madison County as the “Judicial Hellhole Number 1." The group’s December report, presented falsely as fact-based opinion based on careful research, is in reality a partisan cheap shot, designed to assign guilt without even a passing regard for the facts. Indeed, despite factual evidence to the contrary.

But, like the morally ambiguous Captain Renault in the movie, ATRA’s accusations miss the mark and fall without credibility. The facts, such as they are, really DO matter. In reality, the so-called big ticket items - class actions and asbestos - have actually declined.

In 2004, asbestos filings were down more than 50%, from 953 to 464, and class actions were down from a high of 106 to 71, reduced by 30%. So, despite reductions in both fire and brimstone--asbestos and class actions--we are still in Hell.

Despite losing weight, we are still fat. Despite cutting down from two packs a day to one, we are still addicts. Hey, Llama, how’s about a little something for the effort!!!!

Whatever the reason - attorney self-regulation, new sheriff in town with Dan Stack, negative publicity, Randy Bono is tired - the filings are down...way down. Yet, Madison County remains the punching bag, No. 1 with a bullet, a dubious distinction at best, made less in the stark light of reality. Lost in the process is whatever credibility it might possess, even to the untrained and naive, or most partisan.

But wait....there’s more. Like the obedient 5th grade math student, the boys at ATRA have “shown their work,” listing the process and ingredients that a Hellhole doth make.

The listed factors - forum shopping, no connection between the plaintiff and Madison County, both parties out of state, no “wrong” committed here - while perhaps applicable to mass torts or class actions, have nothing to do with medical malpractice cases, where the treatment is here, the parties are here, and all connections are here.

But caught in the big net of deception, malpractice cases are cited as well, with the fleeing doctors repeated ad nauseam. Perhaps it is wise to remind ATRA that there exists NO empirical connection between claims filed and rates charged.

To suggest that the slight, yet highly publized exodus of doctors - over a dozen have started up new practices in Alton - is the result of abnormally high insurance rates, is absurd. The increases are not based in reality, but in the fiction of unequal treatment of the medical profession by the Courts.

As previous columns have shown, no one is treated better before the bar of Justice than those in white coats. The reality is that rates are based on the artificial merger of all tort claims, tarring all with the same indiscriminate brush.

"Round up the usual suspects” has come to stand for a joke, a statement totally lacking in moral authority or credibility. This is, however, the way to judge ATRA's latest pronouncement.

Stealing a line from “Casablanca’s” hero, ATRA might say to the corrupt Captain Renault: “Louie, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “

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