• The latest from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and Mark Twain) Thursday, September 23, 2010

    This being the campaign season, yet another poll would seem a yawner — unless it comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s resiliently supercilious¬† Institute for Legal Reform.

    In what it calls a “bipartisan poll,” the ILR suggests that small businesses in the U.S. are pessimistic about the nation’s economic future and believe the economy is destined to remain stagnant for the next year. Two thirds contend the government is taking actions better left to business and individuals, and three quarters of business people feel it will be bad for the economy if Congress passes laws allowing those darned lawyers to file more lawsuits. Two thirds believe lawsuits are on the rise and will continue to balloon in the coming years.

    Whew. Hold the mayo, and give me a big scoop of pessimism.

    Mark_Twain

    We all know that old Mark Twain saying that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Was he envisioning the Chambers ILR as he penned that enduring insight?

    Certainly the folks who answered the call of duty to take the phone and Internet survey the last two weeks of August by Public Opinion Strategies freely offered those gloomy views of the economic world and the state of civil litigation — at least they felt that way once they were coaxed by the proper polling question. But what does such artifice really tell us?

    Perhaps that sometimes clever survey questions and ill informed answers seem to matter more than the truth.

    Here’s the truth: A poll digging into the opinions of business owners about the number of lawsuits in America seems downright silly given that the number of lawsuits in America is an actual number that can be discerned simply with a bit of digging.

    The facts are that tort filings — the type of civil litigation reputedly bedeviling business — have declined 24% during the decade preceding 2007. That’s according to the National Center for State Courts, an outfit that prefers to deal in facts instead of using figures to fib. Medical malpractice claims, meanwhile, declined 9% and product liability cases fell 4%. Auto cases fell by 23%.

    It gets better. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the number of tort trials in the nation’s 75 largest counties fell more than 31% and the median damage awards in those counties dropped 18%.

    There was one type of litigation that rose during the same period — disputes over contracts, which typically involve businesses suing other businesses, jumped 37%.

    So much for the sky-is-falling survey by the U.S. Chamber.

    Add to all this the chamber’s use of small business people as a fig leaf to hide its own true purpose. The U.S. Chamber is anything but a representative of small business, according to the group U.S. Chamber Watch. The vast majority of the chambers funding comes from gigantic corporations, whose interests are quite different than those of small businesses. During the health care debate, for instance, the chamber took money from big insurance companies and lobbied against regulations that would have reduced the cost of insurance to small business owners. The same thing happened during the debate over Wall Street reform, with the chamber opposing changes that could have helped protect small business.

    Moreover, the chamber’s claims that it has 3 million members have been undercut by reality — a Mother Jones investigation pegged the number at one-tenth that, about 300,000.

    So let’s listen to Mark Twain and do our best to cut through the U.S. Chamber rhetoric meant to shield big business from legal accountability when wrong is done. Civil justice and the American public will be safer for it.

    –Eric Bailey

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