Now, trial lawyers could use a good lawyer

The long-maligned group faces a host of legislative moves to curb its influence.

The headquarters of the trial lawyers association in the nation's capital lies in a predictably tony neighborhood. The red-brick townhouse is nestled in a posh area of Georgetown, alongside a languid canal.

These days, however, those who work inside might want to change the canal into a moat.

With Republicans in charge of much of Washington - and moving to put limits on litigation - the headquarters of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America could be described a building under siege.

For years, ATLA has been one of the most powerful and feted lobbying groups in Washington. With its close ties to the Democratic Party, its members were on the state-dinner invitation list in the Clinton years.

Now, trial lawyers are targets more than titans.

Many Republicans want to curb what they view as a corrosive tide of civil litigation in America. George W. Bush made his mark as governor of Texas on this issue of tort reform. Bill Frist, a doctor unhappy about malpractice suits, took the reins as Senate majority leader this year.

The result: ATLA lobbyists are fighting a wave of legislation this year aimed at capping what juries can award, curbing class-action suits, and protecting individual industries from litigation. Similar bills are getting passed in states, and even attorneys themselves are piling on - filing petitions to limit plaintiff lawyers' fees.

AT the offices of ATLA, chief lobbyist Linda Lipsen insists the atmosphere has been hostile to their interests since Republicans took control of the House in 1994. Yet the lawyers Ms. Lipsen represents smell a new brand of retribution.

"If you cut the legs off the trial lawyers, then you significantly weaken the Democratic Party, and that's what this is all about," says Jeff Wigington, product liability lawyer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who recently won a $225 million suit against the Ford Motor Co.

Republicans certainly wouldn't mind seeing less of that kind of money flowing to trial lawyers. In the most recent congressional election cycle, ATLA donated 90 percent of its $2.8 million in political-action-committee contributions to Democrats. Trial lawyers such as Peter Angelos, who parlayed a fortune from tobacco and asbestos lawsuits into ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, are among the Democratic Party's biggest individual donors.

But with the Chamber of Commerce, insurance companies, and manufacturers lined up in favor of tort reform, neither side in the debate is exactly hurting for money. "It's a real battle of the titans," says Thomas Eaton, a law professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. "These are well organized and well financed adversaries."

Not all lawyers agree that political machinations alone motivate current reform proposals.

"The trial lawyers are under siege for a good reason," says New York corporate lawyer Philip Howard, leader of Common Good, a bipartisan group that he says seeks to change America's lawsuit culture. "They have been a divisive and exploitative force in society for the last decade or two, and their interest is not in protecting victims, it's in getting rich themselves." Common Good has petitioned 12 state courts to consider changes that would cut the contingency fees trial lawyers receive when parties settle early in personal injury cases.

Most tort reform action is in state legislatures and Congress, where advocates have abandoned efforts from the 1990s to get broad changes in one swallow, says Professor Eaton. Instead, proponents are focusing on a few narrower initiatives, such as adjusting the way class-action suits are handled and controlling costs of medical-malpractice litigation.

Already, more than 11 states have approved caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice suits. President Bush has endorsed a similar measure at the federal level to limit non-economic damage to $250,000, which has passed the House.

A separate bill would give federal courts jurisdiction over multistate class-action suits filed by multiple plaintiffs.

Of all the proposals, changes in how asbestos suits are settled enjoy the greatest bipartisan support. What began as lawsuits by shipyard workers with serious medical problems has evolved into suits against an array of industries by 60,000 or more people each year who may manifest no symptoms. "The system is broken and needs to be fixed," says North Carolina attorney Alfred Carlton, who is president of the American Bar Association.

Democrats and Republicans are wrangling over a plan by Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch to create a $100 billion trust fund to compensate asbestos victims outside courts.

Despite their deep pockets, both ATLA and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) portray themselves as underdogs. In ATRA's Washington headquarters, president Sherman Joyce proudly notes that the group is housed in a single suite of offices.

In the trial-lawyer headquarters at ATLA, Lipsen, the organization's chief lobbyist, points out that they have only three lobbyists fighting for the "freedom" of individual Americans from limits on their rights against 80 lobbyists on the other side. Not that a group representing the nation's fiercest litigators minds a fight. Lipsen smiles. "We're way up there on their enemy's list."

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