Perception vs. Reality: Why is Alabama still 46th when it comes to lawsuit abuse? (opinion)
By Chris Reid
As a small business owner, I am very cognizant of the actual cost to run a successful business. Historically, Alabama has not been known for its business-friendly environment, and an infamous NYT article once labeled our state “tort hell” because of the runaway lawsuits that were causing many businesses to look other places when deciding where to locate. I realize as a general practice attorney who handles auto accident cases, I have bias when it comes to this issue, but my monetary interest doesn’t mean I can’t speak to this matter fairly. The truth is that in certain parts of the state, businesses do still live in fear of unreasonably high damage awards. The state legislature has done a fairly good job of reducing frivolous lawsuits, but it hasn’t dealt with the fact that the biggest predictor of how a case will be resolved has more to do with where it is filed than the merits of the case. Having a legal system with predicable results is one of the things businesses look for prior to move to a state, and despite the fact that BCA (Business Counsel of Alabama) has more power now than at any time before, there are still certain reforms that somehow never get put into law. To be fair to my conservative brethren in Montgomery, there is only so much law you can pass to make up for a bad jury pool, and since we all have a constitutional right to a trial by jury, some of the issue is in the way we select jurors in this state.
The people who would be more likely to deliver smaller damage amounts tend to be people who find a way around jury service. The unspoken truth is that given certain facts, it is to a plaintiff’s attorney benefit to find a way to exclude the more highly educated jurors since they will understand nuance to a greater degree, which is good for the person being sued but not for the victim. The attorney who understands the reality of this situation isn’t doing any wrong by doing everything they can to promote the best result to their client. Our system is set up to work so that each side gets to tell its story from their own perspective and the juror gets to decide who to believe. The problem is sometimes your case is only as good as the jury you get so what is frustrating to me is seeing how the imbalance actually hurts victims as well. Someone who is a victim of an injury caused by a careless business in my hometown of Dothan will likely receive significantly less in damages since they live in a business-friendly county. However, a victim of the same wrong would likely receive much higher damages in Tuscaloosa County, even though there may be no difference in the fact pattern. I think our legislature needs to find a way to work with the business community and legal community to enact laws that at the very least promote parity throughout the state.
To be fair to my profession there have also been some laws passed in the last few years that were very one-sided in certain situations against the injury victims, and in our desire to correct a problem, we shouldn’t cut off Alabamians’ access to justice. There has been some excellent bi-partisan legal reforms which would fix the issue, but for whatever reason, they keep dying in the Senate. When I worked in DC for Republican leadership, I remember frequently hearing from House Members that the Senate is where good bills go to die, and I suppose that is happening in our state as well.
As a conservative, I am pleased the GOP controls all levers of government, but we have to demand more of our elected officials than simply having an R by their name. I think those of us who are conservative need to do a better job of educating our voters on what it is we believe and why we believe it. Back when I was majoring in political science at Samford University, I remember the words of one of my liberal political professor when he very clearly stated that political parties “stand for nothing.” I was deeply troubled by this statement because I knew why I was a conservative, but as time has passed, I understand that what he was saying was that voters don’t always ascribe to organizing principles, and sometimes parties simply take positions because it enables them to win elections. If our elected GOP officials are going to prove this statement to be false, they have to do more than introduce good legislation, they need to make sure it becomes law.
Senator Greg Reed is majority leader in the Senate, and from working with him personally I can say he is one of the wisest and most effective leaders in the state. However, even the best leaders can’t stop the one member who wants to use their power to kill good legislation, so I hope we will unite more around effective leaders in the GOP rather than have every member of the party go their own way. If we can get some pro-business legislation that is also considerate of the rights of victims, we can crank the engine of economic growth to a level that our state has never seen. Time will tell what route we take. As an attorney, I have seen the devastating effects that someone else’s negligence causes, and our legislators need to find solutions that seek to find a balance between business interest and injury victims access to justice. I am hopeful with a new governor; we now have a chance to get meaningful legislation passed.
Mr. Reid is general practice attorney in Birmingham Alabama. He has worked for Republican leadership in the United State House of Representatives in Washington, DC, and was a health policy advisor to the Governor of Alabama. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 205-913-7406. A description of his practice areas is available at www.reidlawalabama.com.