Statement on Illinois House Committee of the Whole
John D. Cooney President, Illinois Trial Lawyers Association
May 12, 2015
Public dialogue over the role and nature of our state’s civil justice system is colored by misinformation, distortions and bald-faced lies spread by insurance companies, big businesses and the front groups they fund to maximize profits and shift the responsibility of caring for those sickened or injured by their reckless conduct onto taxpayers. By manufacturing and promoting a mythical lawsuit crisis, they seek to pressure policymakers to insulate them from liability when their dangerous actions harm or kill innocent people.
In moving, powerful and courageous testimony, survivors, family members and victims of corporate negligence and medical malpractice brought home to lawmakers how negatively their lives were impacted and transformed through no fault of their own. All spoke to the critical importance of preserving Illinois laws that make it possible to hold wrongdoers financially accountable for the preventable suffering and heartache they cause.
Molly Akers was falsely diagnosed with breast cancer and had an unnecessary mastectomy due to a mislabeling of a biopsy slide in the pathology laboratory. Molly had to endure multiple surgeries, long hours of physical therapy to address the mistake, and a degraded quality of life as a result of a preventable mistake.
Amy Clark, after giving birth to a son with Angelman syndrome, a neuro-genetic disorder that causes profound intellectual and developmental disability, was incorrectly told by doctors that she and her husband had virtually no chance of having another child who would be born with the same condition. Rather than being caused by a genetic disorder, and hence heritable, they were falsely assured based on testing results that their son’s condition arose from a spontaneous mutation. After having a second son born with the disorder, she later learned that even though doctors had lab results confirming she had a high risk for passing it to her children the physicians gave her the wrong information. She now has the financial responsibility of caring for and raising two children with profound disabilities and the need for constant care and monitoring, and frequent medical care. She spent years engaged in legal battles to receive a settlement that would allow her to properly care for her children, who will need intensive assistance for the rest of their lives.
Sarah Deatherage and Elizabeth Sauter, widows of Illinois State Troopers Kyle Deatherage and James Sauter, explained how their husbands were killed by reckless truck drivers, one of whose incompetence was known by his employer and the other who was severely fatigued because he failed to take required rest breaks, and never should have been on the road. They forcefully rejected the odious notion, advanced by those seeking to neuter Illinois’ tort laws, that a successful wrongful death lawsuit is the equivalent of winning the lottery. As both pointed out, they didn’t “win” anything, they lost their husbands and best friends.
These stories are regrettably emblematic of those of thousands of other Illinoisans. The reality is that, despite the millions of dollars they spend on sentimental advertising campaigns to convince Americans that they really care, money is the only language that businesses and insurance companies speak.
Illinois legislators must not follow the siren song of those who promise to transform the state into an economic paradise if we make it nearly impossible to hold companies engaged in wrongdoing financially accountable. Giving corporations more leeway and incentive to make frightening cost-benefit decisions against spending a few pennies or dollars more to make products safer, figuring they can avoid or limit the financial damages from those who would pursue legal action to hold them accountable for putting profits before people, would be a serious economic and moral mistake.
By weakening our tort laws, all we will have succeeded in doing is compounding the misery of those who have suffered grievous harms and, importantly, shifted to taxpayers the responsibility of paying for the health care, food stamps and other financial assistance required to support devastated and destitute victims who cannot work or families who have lost their breadwinners.
Courts in Illinois provide an even-handed avenue for individuals to hold wrongdoers accountable – even the most powerful actors who, in other spheres of our government, exert vastly disproportionate influence over decision making. Much to the dismay of those proposing to dismantle the constitutional protections afforded to citizens, our legal system serves as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct and, by design, it expeditiously dismisses the very few suits without merit.