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Sunday, January 17, 1999
Trial Attorneys Say Consumer Laws Unsuitable
The state's trial lawyers, long chafing under restrictions backed by Republican governors, are flexing their political muscle after helping to put a Democrat in the governor's mansion.
Members of the plaintiffs' bar, who contributed heavily to Gov. Gray Davis' election in
November, have put together an agenda to change laws they say overly protect business
interests at the expense of consumers.
The group has been stymied for years by public and political sentiment that juries were out of control in awarding huge verdicts. Business also argued that defense costs were burdened by meritless suits, laws and court rulings made it too easy to sue, and plaintiffs' lawyers were after fees, not justice.
But Robinson said public opinion is changing as it dawns on people that they have limited recourse, for instance, if they are mistreated by their HMO or stonewalled by an insurance company.
Even so, lawyers, legislators and lobbyists predict the newly enfranchised trial bar won't go hog wild in proposing legislation, especially under Robinson's leadership.
"They won't go for the moon or for the jugular," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, through which such new measures must pass.
Even Robinson's courtroom opponents believe the new president of the trial lawyers
group will be cautious.
Besides, note those on both sides of the tort reform issue, Davis has sold himself as a moderate and is expected to follow the middle road.
"He's made it pretty clear he'll hold a moderate path," said John H. Sullivan, director of the Assn. for California Tort Reform, which has championed Wilson's efforts to curtail litigation. Still, Sullivan is worried about the future. The day after Davis won, he wrote on his association's Web site: "It is clear that those fighting for balance in California's civil justice system face the biggest challenge in 20 years."
The trial lawyers' agenda focuses on four issues:
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who as a state senator often carried bills favored by the trial lawyers, said: "Pete Wilson had an attitude of never, ever agreeing with the trial bar on any issue."
Indeed, Wilson said in an interview last month that one of his regrets is failing to make more progress in hamstringing "a predatory legal system that raises the cost of doing business."
If trial lawyers win major changes under the new administration, Wilson said, the state's business climate and economy will suffer. But two of Robinson's favorite words are "fair" and "reasonable," an approach designed to avoid evoking the kind of lawyer bashing that has made these fights so shrill in the past.
"The reality is, lawyers are trying to do right--most of them," Robinson said. "It's a little unfair the way they've been attacked for 10 years."
The son of a former Orange County Superior Court judge, Robinson grew up in mid-Los Angeles and graduated from Stanford University and Loyola Law School. He spent brief stints as a prosecutor and a civil defense attorney before finding his niche as a plaintiffs' attorney, specializing in product liability cases. He was a lead lawyer in the Ford Pinto exploding gas tank case, and won a $15-million verdict in a suit against Hyundai Motor America in Fountain Valley, alleging a defective seat belt. In those and other major cases, like ones involving breast implants, phen-fen diet drugs and tobacco, he has won or settled 75 personal injury lawsuits for more than $1 million each.
Timothy Walker, a Long Beach lawyer who represents insurance companies, sees Robinson as a much-needed "fence-mender and consensus builder." "Mark has an ego like everyone else, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve," said Walker, a Robinson friend. In taking a more moderate approach to changes in tort law, Robinson hopes to head off more criticism of lawyers by building on a changing public attitude about the need for consumer protection.
"I think we have a little bit more of a voice, but we have to narrow it down to a few areas of fundamental fairness," Robinson said.
Those who oppose any loosening of tort laws are likely to appeal to moderate Democrats.
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