Politics & Policy

Primary Pass

John Edwards and the Power of Trial Lawyers, Inc.

The Iowa caucus results showed the fluidity of politics, as Howard Dean’s foregone-conclusion candidacy was whisked away as if by the fierce winter winds that howl across the Land of the Rolling Prairie. Back from the dead were the Johns of the Senate, Kerry, and Edwards, who now carry their Hawkeye hype to the Granite State.

Though Iowa represented a remarkable turnaround for the stately Kerry, the story of the caucuses was perhaps that of his fellow Senate multimillionaire, former trial attorney John Edwards. With his boyish good looks and affable manner, Edwards appealed to many caucus-goers just as he had to many a juror. For Edwards’s ability to connect with everyday people was honed by courtroom success; while Kerry amassed his fortune the old-fashioned way, by marrying über-wealthy heiress Teresa Heinz, Edwards won his estimated net worth of $12 to $60 million through a series of successful personal-injury lawsuits.

The untold story of Edwards’s candidacy is that Edwards may have built his fortune in part by relying on the very sort of “junk science” medical-malpractice lawsuits that have created a health-care crisis in no fewer than 19 states. Some of Edwards’s biggest wins–including a jury verdict of $6.5 million (reduced to $2.75 million on appeal) and a settlement of a reported $5 million–came from cases suing doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies over infant cerebral palsy allegedly due to botched deliveries.

Yet as my Manhattan Institute colleague Walter Olson has documented in the Wall Street Journal and on his website overlawyered.com, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, in a comprehensive study released last year, determined that delivery problems were not to blame for cerebral palsy in the “vast majority” of cases. Cerebral palsy is instead typically caused by factors beyond the doctor’s control, such as maternal thyroid problems, genetic abnormalities, or prenatal infection. The ACOG report was peer reviewed and endorsed by, among others, the Centers for Disease Control and the United Cerebral Palsy Research and Education Foundation.

Of course, Edwards’s own cases may have been legitimate, but given jurors’ difficulty in making scientific determinations and the trial bar’s record in this area, there is certainly reason to be suspicious. Why then, in an era in which candidates are so subject to public scrutiny, has Edwards been given such a pass?

Presumably, Edwards’s rivals have been loath to attack his unsavory accumulation of wealth at least in part because of their fear of–and ultimate dependence on–cash contributions from the litigation industry. Plaintiffs’ attorneys, whom we dubbed “Trial Lawyers, Inc.” in a report on the industry last fall, have poured funds into the coffers of their political allies to gain unprecedented influence at the national and state levels. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America routinely ranks among the top five donors to federal campaigns; in the last full political cycle, ATLA was the largest PAC contributor to the Democratic party.

ATLA’s PAC contributions are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Trial Lawyers, Inc.’s political influence. Through individual and soft-money contributions, as well as PAC donations, the lawsuit industry has surpassed all others in political giving in every electoral cycle since 1990. All told, the litigation industry has contributed a half billion to federal campaigns since 1990. Some of this money of course came from defense firms who split their contributions between the parties. But the largest givers have consistently been plaintiffs’ firms; in the last political cycle, each of the seven firms giving over $1 million to federal campaigns was a plaintiffs’ firm, and each gave at least 99 percent of their money to Democrats.

Edwards himself has been particularly dependant on his fellow trial attorneys’ largesse. When first campaigning for the Senate in 1998, Edwards received more than half his total outside contributions from his friends in the lawsuit industry. The sprightly senator began his 2004 presidential run by topping all Democratic candidates in fundraising for the first quarter, with almost two-thirds of his take coming from trial lawyers, their families, and their staffs. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, “even political professionals seem[ed] stunned by the degree to which his candidacy ha[d] become a wholly owned financial subsidiary of the national tort bar.”

Edwards may be the trial bar’s “favorite son,” but their ultimate power as Democratic kingmakers has kept his leading opponents in line. Kerry, like Edwards, has opposed measures in the Senate to rein in class actions that give national economic power to corrupt local “magnet courts,” asbestos lawsuits that have already bankrupted over seventy industrial companies, and medical malpractice suits such as those Edwards championed.

Meanwhile, suits like Edwards’s have driven up malpractice-insurance rates exponentially, over 400 percent in his home state of North Carolina in the last three years. In 2002, the St. Paul Companies, then the largest medical-malpractice insurer, exited the business entirely after toting up nearly $1 billion in losses. And faced with potential bogus “botched delivery” suits, many obstetricians are limiting their practices to gynecology, forcing women in some areas to travel hours for prenatal care and delivery.

Faced with the ominous power of Trial Lawyers, Inc., the main Democratic contenders are likely to continue to avoid confronting these facts and their obvious link to Edwards’s courtroom history. But should Edwards continue to confound expectations and emerge as the Democratic standard-bearer, as many pundits hope, we should not expect the Bush team to be so kind.

Jim Copland is the director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute.


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