Athwart torts: why the case politicians and special-interest groups make that lawsuits are crippling the economy doesn't stand up.

Author:Martin, Edward
 
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Children giggle and squeal as they churn the water in the wading pool at Medfield Area Recreation Club in Cary, but above the clamor a shriek jolts David Lakey. Standing nearby with other parents, he spots his 5-year-old daughter seemingly frozen to the bottom of the pool. He tries to scoop her up, gently tugging on the brown-haired girl, but she won't budge. "My stomach hurts," she whimpers.

Another parent notices she's sitting on the pool drain and flips a switch that cuts off its powerful pump. As Lakey splashes from the pool with her in his arms, a red stain spreads behind them in the water. On the deck, he cradles her and whispers over and over, "Daddy loves you."

Valerie Lakey will turn 18 this month, 12 1/2 years since a loose cover allowed the drain's suction to disembowel her. After years of surgery and treatment, a routine--school, piano lessons, birthday parties--slowly developed in her life. But no parent wants to imagine parts of the routine--nights attached to feeding tubes, the constant risk of infections and organ failures. "She's in a lot of pain," her mother says. "She's got permanent injuries that are going to affect her the rest of her life."

Few North Carolinians would recognize her name, but most know that of her lawyer: John Edwards, the former U.S. senator and Democratic candidate for vice president in 2004. In 1997, in a product-liability lawsuit he filed, a jury decided the maker of the drain cover was at fault and awarded the Lakeys $25 million, the largest personal-injury award in state history. It included no punitive damages, only costs that experts estimated the child would incur in a lifetime of care. Unwittingly, though, her case helped fuel a struggle that pits business, industry and professions such as medicine against the legal profession. Some call it the demonization of lawyers.

"We've been hit by a very expensive, well-financed public-relations offensive by special interests bent on changing the subject from accountability and responsibility for their actions to creating a new bogeyman," says Richard Taylor, chief executive of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, which has more than 4,000 members. "We're it."

Most of his group's members represent individuals who claim injury by faulty products, negligence, accidents or malpractice, but the taint is spreading even to members of firms that represent business and industry. "There's no doubt the profession is under assault," says Willis Whichard, a former state Supreme Court justice and ex-legislator who is dean of Campbell University's law school. "The level of respect has declined to the point, you hear over and over, that lawyers rank just ahead of used-car salesmen in public esteem."

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Whichard says more is at stake than prestige. Lawsuits decided by juries are the last line of defense when enforcement of laws and rules breaks down.

"What's at stake? Our form of government," says David Ball, a national jury consultant based in Durham and author of several books. "If you take juries out of the mix, the tri-part government we have can't exist. I don't blame the chambers of commerce, doctors or politicians. They're just doing their damned jobs. But we're at risk of creating a form of anarchy here."

Detractors tell a different story. They say lawyers are reaping an ill wind they generate by preying on gullible clients and sympathetic juries, parlaying unscrupulous tactics and marginal ethics into riches for themselves. Particular targets are those like Edwards, who won an estimated $150 million for plaintiffs injured by defective products, medical malpractice and other causes.

Rolf Blizzard is chief lobbyist for the 2,000-member North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, the state chamber of commerce. "Unfortunately," he says...

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