Despite critics, consumers laud state’s trial lawyers

Lake Oswego elementary school teacher Kellie La Follette never imagined she would need to hire an attorney. But, after she and several of her colleagues received radiation burns from broken metal halide bulbs during an in-service training in November 2004, they got a crash course in how the state’s legal and political system works.

“None of us have legal or political backgrounds, so it was really helpful to have the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association to help guide us through the system and make the political connections we needed,” La Follette said.

La Follette credits the organization for help suing the New Jersey-based manufacturer of the halide bulbs.

However, Oregon puts an eight-year time limit on product defect claims. The light bulbs at Bryant Elementary School were older than that.

Trial lawyers want to repeal the law, which they say is one of the most restrictive in the country. While the teachers explore other legal options against the bulb manufacturer, they and the Trial Lawyers Association were successful in getting legislation passed that prohibits R-type metal halide or mercury vapor light bulbs in schools.

“I sat in a school gym and my life will never be the same,” La Follette said. “The daily effects of living with radiation burns to your eyes include 24-hour pain that never goes away, even when you’re asleep, and incredible sensitivity to light.”

Attorney Stephen Hendricks, the association’s immediate past president, said protecting consumers against defective products is just one of the group’s many objectives. Established over a half-century ago, the organization’s membership includes 900 attorneys and 300 other professionals who represent individuals and businesses in civil court. Based in Portland, the group is led by Executive Director Beth Bernard and a handful of staff members. Its leadership includes five attorneys who serve as officers and nearly two dozen lawyers on its Board of Governors.

The organization educates the public about jury service and how the legal system works, and provides continuing education for legal professionals. It also promotes safer products and advocates for workers’ rights, access to quality health care, protecting the environment, eliminating discrimination in the workplace and access to justice.

Hendricks said Oregon Trial Lawyers Association provided a broad network of advice and support when he joined in the 1970s.

“It gave me an opportunity to confer with and learn from those who knew more than I did, and the chance to bounce ideas off of others and have other people to talk to,” he said.

However, some say trial lawyers drive up the costs of consumer goods and other services through “frivolous lawsuits” and excessive litigation. The San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute publishes an index that ranks all 50 states as either “saints, sinners, salvageables or suckers” when it comes to its tort system.

Oregon ranks as a “sinner,” based on factors such as the number of lawsuits filed in the state and its tort laws.

The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association is already involved in revising the state’s cap on torts claims.

In a 2007 case involving Oregon Health & Science University, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that limits on liability claims against government entities violate the Remedy Clause in the state’s constitution. The Trial Lawyers Association is crafting a proposal to change the law. It’ll be considered by the 2009 Legislature.

The organization also is working to repeal a law passed during the 1980s that limits the amount of legal compensation allowed in wrongful death cases.

Jason Reynolds, executive director of the Consumer Justice Alliance, said the organization has been an invaluable resource for his group.

“When we see a consumer who has been badly damaged and we can’t do enough through the regulatory agencies to help them, we refer them to the trial lawyers association,” Reynolds said.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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