Opinion: Fighting for the rights of the average Californian

Who’s looking out for the rights of the average Californian?  Who’s taking responsibility for keeping hard-working families safe from dangerous products, workplace abuses and consumer rip-offs?

If we’ve learned anything during the current financial crisis, we’ve learned who’s not doing these things:  Wall Street, the banking industry, insurance companies. Time and again, the worst players have made it abundantly clear they’re looking to improve their bottom line at the expense of the consumer, whether it’s hiding risky investments, piling on outrageous fees, raising interest rates to unconscionable levels, or denying coverage to consumers who just want what they paid for.

Is government the ultimate protector of consumers?  We can’t count on it.  With the financial crisis affecting budgets at every level, there are fewer and fewer resources available for enforcement. With continued political pressure from the right to reduce regulation, despite the disastrous impact of reduced regulation in the financial industry, it doesn’t look like consumers can depend on their elected officials to keep them safe from corporate exploitation and abuse.

Fortunately for consumers, the law is on their side when business isn’t and government can’t be.  Well-funded corporate interests will do what they can to reduce consumers’ access to the legal system and the courts. And with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates on corporate political giving, the pressure to reduce access is only going to increase.

That’s where consumer attorneys come in – to fight for Californians who suffer harm at the hands of businesses that put profits ahead of people.

But let’s be clear about this:  We consumer attorneys don’t assume that many or most businesses put profits first.  We support the rights of businesses, big and small.  We are in business ourselves, and it’s in our best interest that businesses and business owners are treated fairly.  All we ask is that corporations large and small play by the rules, the laws that govern our state and nation – and that they are accountable when they don’t.

One of the ways in which corporate wrongdoers are held to answer for their actions is the class action lawsuit.  These suits exist so corporations that engage in widespread harm can be made to compensate victims and be punished for wrongdoing.  Class action suits provide a crucial deterrent to corporate misbehavior.  They have been used to address social injustice and protect consumers from dangerous vehicles, drugs and other products.  And they have worked.

In a perfect world, no corporation should engage in behavior that creates the need for filing a lawsuit. Until that happens, there is no such thing as the “right” number of class-action suits.  

When businesses discriminate against employees, manufacture and sell unsafe products, poison our air and water, expose unwitting Californians to hazardous materials, or hoodwink investors out of their retirement savings, class action suits will follow.  Even so, they’re exceedingly rare.  A report last year by the Administrative Office of the Courts noted that class action cases represent less than one-half of one percent of all unlimited civil filings.

And let’s be clear about this as well:  Attorneys who stand up for the rights of consumers are paid for their efforts, just as the attorneys who represent the corporate interests we fight are paid, and sometimes paid quite well.  Under the contingency fee system, we consumer attorneys aren’t compensated at all unless we win a favorable outcome for our clients.  The financial risk and up-front costs of litigation are all on us.  It’s a system that guarantees access to the courts for all Californians, even those of the most limited means.  And it’s a system that goes a long way towards filtering out meritless cases, because attorneys who don’t win don’t get paid.

At this time of Wall Street profiteering an ever-widening gulf between the powerful moneyed interests and the typical Californian, we should not be looking at limiting consumers’ ability to enforce their legal rights.  We consumer attorneys believe the purest form of democracy is 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, checked by a judge trained in the law.  And we will fight against any efforts to restrict consumers’ access to the justice system.  Those who play by the rules deserve protection from those who do not.

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