New York Personal Injury Law Blog » tort reform


January 17th, 2007

Too Many Lawsuits You Say?

Ripped straight from the New York Times, Editorial Advisor, on Jan. 14, 2007 (sub. req.):

They Say We Have Too Many Lawsuits? Tell It to Jack Cline

Birmingham, Ala.

Jack Cline is in a hospital here fighting for his life, stricken by leukemia that he says he got from exposure to benzene at his factory job. In most states, he would be able to sue the companies that made the benzene. But Alabama’s all-Republican, wildly pro-business Supreme Court threw out his case.

In a ruling that would have done Kafka proud, the court held that there was never a valid time for Mr. Cline to sue. If he had sued when he was exposed to the benzene, it would have been too early. Alabama law requires people exposed to dangerous chemicals to wait until a “manifest” injury develops. But when his leukemia developed years later, it was too late. Alabama’s statute of limitations requires that suits be brought within two years of exposure.
Corporate America — with its large contributions to political and judicial candidates, and its top-dollar lobbyists — has had remarkable success persuading legislatures and courts to erode the bedrock principle of civil law: when people are injured, they are entitled to sue for damages.

Mr. Cline’s lawyer, Mr. Palmer, argued that preventing him from ever suing denied him his rights under the Alabama Constitution to seek a legal remedy for his injuries.

Mr. Palmer was encouraged when the Alabama Supreme Court reopened the case. He also saw it as a good sign when it scheduled oral arguments for a special public session on a law school campus, an indication it considered the case particularly significant. The arguments went well. “Questions asked by several justices indicated they were troubled by the legal Catch-22,” The Birmingham News reported.

The court ruled this month. It affirmed the dismissal of Mr. Cline’s case by a 5-to-4 vote. If Mr. Cline wanted to challenge the unfairness of the rules, it said, he would have to take it up with the State Legislature — a body every bit as pro-business as the Alabama Supreme Court.

Mr. Palmer intends to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, Mr. Cline can take some small comfort in the close vote. Four Alabama justices, at least, would not accept a legal system that told people like him that “no matter when” they “file the action, it is either too soon or too late.”

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