Matoesian raises auto prices

The Madison County Record Apr. 23, 2006, 4:08am

One year ago, a Madison County jury slapped Ford with a $43 million verdict because its 1993 Lincoln Town Car "negligently" couldn't withstand a direct hit, rear-end collision at 60 miles-per-hour.

The money and "justice" went to Widow Dora Jablonski, whose husband died in the accident. The driver responsible, Natalie Ingram, got off scot free. And the rest of us-- we'll all pay more for automobiles here and elsewhere as automakers prepare for similar lawsuits and similar verdicts based on the new law the jury in this case effectively created.

That last point, that these multi-million dollar "jackpot justice" jury awards have a real impact on all of our lives, is too often ignored. We all assume that the big, rich automaker just writes a check and puts a case like Jablonski in its rear-view mirror. But it doesn't happen that way. It cannot happen that way, because Ford and companies like it cannot ignore these verdicts as one-off events.

Because they aren't.

In his essay on the subject making the web rounds last week, "Making Civil Justice Sane," lawyer/author Philip K. Howard explained precisely how cases like Jablonski are changing our broader society. They don't just make cars more pricey, but also lead schools to ban dodge ball and city parks to mothball jungle gyms and seesaws.

People no longer trust but, instead, fear justice these days, Howard says, because they're never sure what a jury is going to do. So long as "how safe is safe enough" remains the subjective call of a jury, nobody can ever be sure they're doing the right thing.

The problem here, according to Howard, lies with judges, whose serial yielding of their own authority has rendered the bench impotent. In a civil lawsuit between two parties, a judge's job is to represent the law and the people. By deferring questions of law like "how safe is safe enough" to jurors, they betray our democracy by transforming a group of randomly-selected citizens into a back-door legislative body.

Angry about Dora Jablonski? Don't blame the jurors or even her opportunistic trial lawyers like Brad Lakin, set to walk away with $14 million in fees.

The buck stopped with Judge Andy Matoesian. He didn't absolve himself of his responsibility to us by passing it to the jury.

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