An article that appeared this week in the New York Times detailed the legal struggles of some of the victims of General Motors’ corporate negligence – struggles made worse by misguided laws designed to protect corporate bottom lines at the expense of public health and safety.
As I have written about many times this year, the giant auto maker is in serious legal trouble as evidence has emerged that it knew for years about defects in its cars’ ignition switches but did little to fix them. As the Times notes, “Today, at least 42 people are known to have died in crashes linked to the defective ignition switch, and both GM and federal safety regulators have come under fire for allowing the danger to linger for more than a decade.”
What could make a situation like this even worse? A legal system that limits the damages a bereaved family can collect. The Times article details the struggle of two Wisconsin families. Both lost loved ones to the GM defect, but neither was able to get any Wisconsin attorney to take their case because of a state law capping damage awards at $350,000. Every law firm approached by both families eventually decided that the limit on potential damages made it impossible for them to fight a huge company like GM without ultimately losing money.
Here in Oregon we too have some limits on awards in cases like these. Oregon law limits awards in wrongful death cases to $500,000, for example. There are also limits on the amount one can collect when suing a public body (i.e. the State, a County government, etc). The usual reasons given for laws like these are efforts to reduce frivolous lawsuits and excessive jury awards. As a Portland attorney who sees every day the difficulties ordinary Oregonians face when trying to hold a large company accountable for the harm it has done, it is clear that this reasoning is backwards.
The entire reason we have a legal system that combines judges with juries is to ensure that outcomes are fair to everyone: that evidence is weighed and decisions are reached which apportion responsibility in a fair and just manner. That end, however, cannot be achieved when the table is tilted toward one party in a lawsuit. At its worst, such a system allows the rich to bring disproportionate resources to bear on a case and, as a result, to win by default. That is not the way the system is supposed to work, and it is not a situation that builds the public confidence our legal system depends on.
New York Times: Victims of GM Deadly Defect Fall Through Legal Cracks