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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Let's make war on trial lawyers who represent crippled kids and their families

Edwards and the family he helped

The GOP war on trial lawyers
Is John Edwards an economy-draining, ambulance-chasing social pariah, as Republicans and big business claim? Ask his clients, like 5-year-old Valerie Lakey.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Tim Grieve

July 13, 2004 | On a summer evening in 1993, David Lakey took his little girl swimming at a recreation center in Raleigh, N.C. Valerie Lakey was 5 years old, a good swimmer, and she and her friends liked to splash around in the children's wading pool that stayed open a little later than the big pool where they usually swam.

That's what Valerie was doing when a nearby mom heard her call out for help. Valerie was sitting on the bottom of the shallow pool, and the suction from the drain was holding her down. David Lakey raced to free his daughter but couldn't. Other parents jumped in the water to help, but they couldn't get Valerie loose. Valerie was scared, and she began to say that her stomach hurt.

Time passed, and somebody figured out how to turn off the pool's pump. The suction broke, and Valerie was released from its grip. But as David Lakey pulled his daughter from the water, blood and tissue filled the pool. Valerie's intestines had been sucked out.

David Lakey slumped to the ground on the side of the pool. He held his daughter on his chest, praying as they waited for an ambulance. Over and over, he told Valerie, "Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you."

This account of what happened to Valerie Lakey comes from "Four Trials," the book John Edwards wrote last year as he prepared to run for the presidency. Edwards represented Valerie in a lawsuit against the company that made the drain cover in that swimming pool. A jury awarded her $25 million, compensation for a life of intravenous feedings and colostomy bags.

Tucker Carlson has heard about Valerie's case. It's the one, apparently, that causes him to dismiss John Edwards as a "personal-injury lawyer specializing in Jacuzzi cases."
By portraying John Edwards as an ambulance-chasing, playground-closing personal-injury lawyer, the Bush-Cheney team hopes to turn off swing voters who might otherwise be attracted to Edwards' populist image while simultaneously shoring up Bush's support from big business. As a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers told the New York Times last week, "Trial lawyers are the pariahs of the business community, which is more frightened by them than terrorists, China or higher energy prices."

But there's a problem for the Republicans: Lawyers like John Edwards, and clients like Valerie Lakey. The GOP and its allies in business and the media can articulate broad economic policy reasons for tort reform, for cracking down on lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits, for reining in the forum shopping and other abuses that sometimes accompany big class-action lawsuits. But it's tough to pin any of those problems on Edwards -- no one has charged that he filed frivolous lawsuits -- and it's hard to trump stories like Valerie Lakey's with statistics about what Republicans call the "tort tax."

Edwards practiced law in North Carolina for nearly two decades. He spent the first two years of his legal career as a junior associate in a law firm that represented corporate defendants, then moved on to the plaintiff's work for which he became famous. He represented children who developed cerebral palsy in lawsuits against their mothers' doctors and hospitals; a woman who underwent a double mastectomy based on a false diagnosis of cancer; he represented a child whose parents were killed when their car was smashed by a big rig; he represented Valerie Lakey.

"The Republicans want to put Edwards out there as a 'trial lawyer,' but I don't think it cuts deeply as an issue because he's not your stereotypical, caricaturable ambulance chaser," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. "The kind of clients that Edwards represented are everyday folks, folks like you and me, people who feel aggrieved by powerful forces out there, whether it's an HMO or a hospital or something else."

Mike Dayton, who watched Edwards' career while working as the editor of the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, said that Edwards' clients "were almost to a person these catastrophically injured or killed plaintiffs. They're certainly sympathetic in their own right, and it's hard not to feel the pain of those people and want to do right by them."

Not surprisingly, the Republicans have generally steered clear of discussion about the clients Edwards represented. It's easy to make hay over million-dollar recoveries for spilled coffee at McDonald's -- especially if you ignore the fact that the woman who spilled the coffee was seriously injured, that McDonald's refused an offer to settle the case for $20,000, and that a judge later reduced the jury's award of $2.7 million in punitive damages to just $480,000. It's harder to say much -- at least, not without sounding as crass as Tucker Carlson -- about the sort of cases Edwards handled.

And then there's Carlson's larger point, that Edwards would give the money back if he really cared about the little girl. Bush could have given his buyout back to the Texas Rangers if he really cared about the team. Cheney could have given his pension back to Halliburton if he really cared about the company. The Rangers might have been able to hold onto Alex Rodriguez, and Halliburton might have been able to charge the military less for gasoline in Iraq. No one suggests that businessmen like Cheney or Bush should work for free. But to undercut Edwards' populist image, the Republicans suggest that Edwards should have done just that.

This is the dumbest, most out of touch campaign the GOP could possibly wage. Yes, people hate lawyers, they don't think much of personal injury lawyers, except when they represent crippled little children and their working class parents. Or maybe American movies have been about other things lately. But the way I remember it, laywers who represent working people against greedy corporations are heroes.

Why didn't he give back his fee to his clients? Because they agreed to give it to him. He told them it would be a third of the settlement and they were happy to get him as a lawyer, regardless. Without his effort, they would be living in pernury and their daughter institutionalized.

The GOP campaign, not just with Bush, but along the line, is in trouble. This is a desperate, stupoid attack. What are they going to do when his clients, people greviously wronged and saved by Edwards, start to come out of the woodwork? Attack them? Because they will make great character witnesses for him. He helped my family is not something Bush/Cheney should want to hear in commercials.

To put a fine point on it, just as John Kerry yanked an SF officer from the drink while being shot at, John Edwards saved people at the worst moments of their lives. He got them the money to live a decent life and care for chronically ill family members. Sure he got rich, but not because of his clients, but because greedy corporations were held to account. Without his work, they would have never paid a dime.

Talking about his career is great for the Dems. Let's encourage this misguided campaign so Edwards can recount some of the trials he won, and bring his former clients into the media. Yes, let's do that.

posted by Steve @ 10:02:00 AM

10:02:00 AM

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