The gothic horror of Madison County

Daphne du Maurier's gothic novel Jamaica Inn tells the story of a gang of cutthroats in 19th Century England who make their living causing ships to wreck on the rocky Cornwall coast, murdering the survivors as they swim ashore, and then looting the cargo.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1939 film version stars Maureen O'Hara as the innocent orphan girl who comes to stay with her aunt and uncle at the inn and accidentally discovers the evil enterprise.

Learning to her horror that her uncle is the leader of the shipwrecking crew and that nearly everyone in the community participates in and profits from the plunder, she appeals for help to a respected public figure (played by Charles Laughton), who turns out to be the cynical mastermind of the operation.

Granted, the booty boosted from the sinking ships is a windfall for the all-but-nonexistent local economy, but still, what the shipwreckers are doing is undeniably wrong – and anyone who chooses not to speak out against it is effectively an accomplice.

You've probably guessed by now where we're going with this and you may think it's an unfair comparison. But, if the Madison County Courthouse is not our own sordid version of Jamaica Inn, what is it?

No, we're not murdering anyone, but we are using bogus lawsuits to lure unsuspecting businesses to our "shores" so that we can bludgeon them into submission with gavels and steal their wealth.

"Every cell phone operator -- virtually every large company in various industries -- has been dragged into Madison County and had to pay ransom to get out," observes Cardozo Law School professor Lester Brickman, an expert on asbestos and class action litigation.

In the short run, such rapacity may be good for our economy, as some suggest. In the long run, it may be the very thing that persuades wary executives and entrepreneurs to steer clear of us.

The big question is, do we really want to be a gang of thieves?

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