Last summer, Texas enacted comprehensive civil justice reform. In response, personal-injury-lawyer-cum- state-legislator Stratton Taylor made a pitch to friends in the American Trial Lawyers Association to attract displaced Texas lawsuits to the Sooner State, as exposed in a Wall Street Journal editorial on Dec. 19.
While encouraging more litigation to Oklahoma might serve as a jobs program for Taylor’s buddies in the lawsuit industry, it’s a sure-fire way to make life worse for most Oklahomans. Corporations are likely to leave states in which litigation is out of control.
In a Harris Poll survey conducted last year, 82 percent of corporate executives said a state’s litigation environment could affect important business decisions such as whether to locate or do business there.
Corporate leaders’ perceptions of the costs of litigation are based on facts. In 2002, tort litigation soaked up $233 billion from the economy. That’s $3,200 per year for the average American family of four. At well over 2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, our tort system costs far more than that in any other industrialized country. Does anyone really believe that the U.S. is that much safer than, say, Germany, Norway or Japan?
Were the litigation industry a corporation, Trial Lawyers Inc. would have annual revenues of over $40 billion, more than half again those of Microsoft or Intel, and twice those of Coca-Cola.
To grow that business, the lawsuit industry channels its steady profits from mature business lines like asbestos into creative new ventures, including suits over lead paint, “toxic” mold, and fast food. Trial Lawyers Inc.’s aggressive customer targeting efforts include not only print, radio and television ads but also Web sites that troll for class-action members online.
The litigation industry puts its money to work better than any other special interest in the political game. The lawsuit industry’s half-billion dollars in federal contributions since 1990 has not only led all other industries over that span; it has led all other industries in each political cycle.
With such political clout, the litigation industry’s excesses can be contained only with courage and resilience from our business and political leaders, such as that displayed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in his successful fight for tort reforms last summer.
In a similar display of courage, Gov. Brad Henry has now entered the fray in making a comprehensive proposal for reform that would make Oklahoma one of the nation’s leaders in civil justice.
Since those same executives who deemed a state’s litigation climate so crucial also ranked Oklahoma’s litigation environment as 36th out of the 50 states, the Sooner State could surely use reforms along the lines that Henry suggests.
Let’s hope that Oklahoma’s legislators have the courage to act. If not, even as the lawyers bring lawsuits into Oklahoma, jobs for the non- lawyers in the state will be heading south of the border.