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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chamber Of Commerce Plans Campaign Against Trial Lawyers

Associated Press

Washington’s largest business lobbying group is making plans for a campaign next year that could be its most expensive ever: an all-out attack on trial lawyers.

Enlisting help from congressional Republican leaders and from natural allies like the tobacco industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans a public relations offensive, stepped-up lobbying on Capitol Hill on issues like product liability, and a possible legal challenge to the election of judges in states like Alabama that are seen as particularly friendly to plaintiffs.

The multimillion-dollar fight is to be financed by a variety of business interests who see growing legal costs as a burden to economic growth and competitiveness, said officials knowledgeable about the campaign.

One chamber official said it may grow into the most expensive effort ever undertaken by the group, which is an alliance of more than 200,000 businesses nationwide, together with 3,000 state and local chambers.

The official said a variety of businesses - including tobacco companies and other manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers - have been approached about the campaign and many will be asked to help pay for it.

Chamber spokesman Frank Coleman declined to discuss details, saying the plans are still in formation. But he said the organization’s new chief executive, Thomas Donohue, has a more aggressive agenda for the chamber that includes “going toe to toe with the trial lawyers.”

Senior vice president Larry Kraus, who is heading the effort, said it also will seek ways to lessen employment-related lawsuits such as wrongful discharge cases. “That’s what’s driving small business crazy,” he said.

The president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Richard Hailey, said he was not surprised by the planned attack. “Americans believe in personal and corporate responsibility, and they will not be fooled by this self-serving effort to convince them that profits are more important than the lives and safety of American families,” he said.

The two lobbying powerhouses, perennial antagonists, are facing off at a time when issues critical to both are near the top of Congress’ agenda: a proposed $368 billion settlement with tobacco companies and legislation to rewrite the laws governing companies’ legal liability for defective products.

The lawyer bashing is welcomed by congressional Republicans, for whom plaintiffs’ attorneys are a financial as well as an ideological foe. The trial lawyers group was the third largest political contributor in the 1996 election campaign, giving $3.5 million - 85 percent of it to Democrats. As individuals, trial lawyers gave millions more.

The fight is particularly important because of the pending tobacco settlement, where lawyers’ fees have become a major issue that threatens to derail an agreement. For example, the settlement between tobacco companies and the state of Florida called for plaintiffs’ attorneys to get 25 percent of the state’s $11 billion settlement - about $233 million for each of the 12 lawyers the state hired. A judge invalidated the contract, ruling the fees excessive, and the lawyers have appealed.

In the context of the tobacco settlement, the GOP hopes to paint trial lawyers as greedy opportunists in search of multibillion-dollar fees. “We’re going to make it one of the big issues,” said one senior Republican aide.

In its first volley, a House Judiciary subcommittee called a hearing Wednesday to draw attention to potential windfall fees for lawyers in the tobacco settlement. The subcommittee is chaired by a tobacco loyalist, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and the hearing included testimony from an attorney for R.J. Reynolds.

In a move to head off criticism, the trial lawyers group sent Coble a letter agreeing that billion-dollar attorneys’ fees are “excessive and unreasonable” and urging that fees be set by judges. It is equally unreasonable, said trial lawyers president Hailey, for Congress to set caps on attorneys’ fees.