Lawsuits Are Good for Your Health

With the White House and the Statehouse repeatedly sacrificing constituents at the altar of business, lawsuits are the only way to hold companies accountable for decisions that place profits ahead o

Feb 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm

With the White House and the Statehouse repeatedly sacrificing constituents at the altar of business, lawsuits are the only way to hold companies accountable for decisions that place profits ahead of people. Lawsuits are vital to the health and lives of Americans.

Less than two weeks into his presidency, George W. Bush froze scores of regulations enacted by the Clinton administration, including: mandatory testing for listeria, a pathogen that kills 20 percent of those it infects; reductions in the amount of arsenic in drinking water; numerous workplace safety rules; monitoring the health effects of genetically modified crops; and standards to improve air quality.

Facing pressure after 27.4 million pounds of infected chicken were recalled, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally announced it would approve the listeria testing regulation. This came nearly one year after Bush froze the rule, which could have kept the tainted meat off supermarket shelves.

Similarly, only a loud and active campaign by scientists and consumer organizations pressured the administration into accepting the rule lowering the permissible amount of arsenic, a known carcinogen, in drinking water.

But most of the consumer safeguards that Bush froze at the beginning of his term have been scrapped, either officially or by the administration's purposeful inactivity on them.

The gutting of long-standing regulations further threatens health and safety. Last November the administration announced significant changes to 25-year old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations requiring chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers to install modern pollution-reducing equipment when expanding or altering facilities. The administration's new regulations don't require the new equipment; in fact, they increase the permissible emissions for some facilities.

The administration's non-enforcement renders impotent many of those pollution and consumer safety regulations that remain. Under Bush, polluters have paid nearly two-thirds less in fines than under former President Clinton, according to a November 2002 report by the Knight Ridder News Service. Two high level EPA enforcement officials have resigned in protest of the administration's dismissive attitude toward safety standards.

Perhaps most indicative of the attitude toward consumer safety is Bush's selection of Timothy Muris to head the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

While working for the FTC under former presidents Ford and Reagan, Muris jettisoned many of the safety regulations enacted by former President Carter. In an interview with The Washington Post, Muris expresses a reluctance to pursue tough cases and a trust in corporate behavior that is unsettling in a man who enforces consumer protection laws.

"The Clinton administration has spent too much emphasis on investigating and prosecuting winners," Muris told the paper. "There was too much suspicion in that administration."

As the federal government has abdicated its duty to protect its constituents, so, too, has Ohio's.

A law enacted in 2000 transfers from the Ohio EPA to the state Department of Agriculture monitoring of pollution by concentrated animal feeding operations — the large animal warehouses that dominate Ohio farming. This law — introduced by State Sen. Larry Mumper (R-Marion), a farmer — gives authority for regulating agricultural pollution to the same agency responsible for promoting Ohio farms. This conflict of interest could result in enforcement even more lax than the state EPA's much-criticized policing.

Ohio lawmakers consistently favor health maintenance organizations (HMOs) over consumers. Industry lobbying has defeated bills to require coverage for mental illness comparable to coverage for physical illnesses. Lawmakers also continue to protect HMOs from lawsuits even though the industry's claims of expensive, frivolous lawsuits pushing premiums higher isn't supported by the experience of government health plans, whose participants have always had the right to sue.

With the federal and state government's refusal to police corporate behavior, lawsuits represent the only weapon citizens have against businesses that knowingly endanger public safety. The history of capitalism in America is riddled with such companies, according to Smoking Guns: Corporate Behavior and the Harmful Impact of a Punitive Damages Cap by the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen.

· The asbestos industry knew by 1918 — when the insurance industry stopped covering its workers due to high fatality rates — that exposure to the product led to a slow, painful death. Yet the industry covered up and denied the product's deadly nature for seven decades. The EPA finally banned the use of asbestos in 1989, 12 years after Congress passed the first of many attempts to shield the industry from lawsuits. Asbestos killed 171,500 people in the United States between 1967 and 1997 and, due to its lingering effects, is expected to kill another 118,700 by 2027.

· Ford Motor Co. released the Pinto in 1972, after crash tests showed design flaws that significantly increased the risk of explosion in rear-end collisions. Company memos and notes show Ford decided before the Pinto's release to save $10.9 million by deferring improvements that would have remedied these defects.

· Reigel Textile Corp. sold highly flammable fabric for use in baby and children's pajamas. The company knew the fabric was flammable but refused, because of the cost, to treat it with flame-retardant chemicals, according to court testimony and company memos. The company also refused to warn consumers.

· For 15 years General Motors produced pickup trucks that had a propensity to catch fire upon impact. To date, 750 people have been burned to death in accidents involving these trucks. The company refused to recall the vehicles, as demanded by the Secretary of Transportation in 1993, and instead reached a financial settlement with the Justice Department.

· Remington Arms Co.'s Model 700 contains a problematic trigger connector that might cause the gun to fire unexpectedly. Four deaths and dozens of injuries have been linked to the gun. Far from being recalled, this model is Remington's current bestseller, contributing more than 15 percent to annual revenues.

· From 1972 through 1986, American Motors Corp. produced the Jeep CJ. A weak pin connected the CJ's body to its suspension, so even slight side impacts would break the pin, causing the vehicle to roll over. Although an average of 200 fatalities occurred each year through 1990 due to this problem, neither AMC nor its new owner, Chrysler, recalled the vehicle.

Life and safety do not always trump profits. If companies knowingly produce dangerous, deadly products — even in an era of frequent lawsuits and large jury awards — and if politicians refuse to regulate such behavior, then lawsuits are vital to the well-being of consumers. They speak the only language that corporations sometimes hear — dollars and cents.