Corporate Spending In State Court Elections Fuels Dramatic Losses For Injured Individuals

In the nation’s highest court, corporations are winning immunity from lawsuits at a higher rate than ever, in part because they can invest tremendous sums in litigation. But in many state high courts, corporations have yet another tool in their arsenal to rig the game in their favor: spending on state judicial elections. And as spending on judicial elections continues to break new records nationwide, those six state supreme courts that have seen the most money pour into their judicial elections since 2002 — Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois — saw individuals losing to corporate defendants in the overwhelming majority of the cases, according to a new Center for American Progress report. These states are seeing average win rates of 70 percent for corporate defendants, and this rate does not even account for the countless individuals who never sue to begin with, because both the laws of the state and the orientation of the judges pummel their chances at success. Report author Billy Corriher explains:

One Texas plaintiff, Connie Spears of San Antonio, ran up against the state’s stringent medical-malpractice laws when she sought to hold a hospital accountable for failing to diagnose a blood clot, a problem she had previously experienced. The delay in discovering the clot led to the amputation of both of her legs. It took years for her to find a lawyer willing to take the case, due to Texas’ defendant-friendly laws, and once she did, she could not find an expert witness who met the state’s standards. Spears says that negligent medical care has impacted her family and “ruined all of our lives,” but she could not hold anyone accountable in Texas.

Even in in those cases in which the evidence is so overwhelming that lawyers believe they may be able to overcome the onerous legal standards set by courts and legislatures, individuals have lost over and over. In Ohio, a plant worker whose leg was crushed and pelvis fractured after he was pinned against an electric powered fork lift could not overcome the state legal requirement that corporations have “deliberate intent” to injure the employee, in spite of rampant evidence of willful negligence. In fact, Bruce Houdek’s manager had explicitly told the forklift drivers not to avoid aisles where employees were driving fork lifts and labeling inventory. He lost his case for damages 6–1.

When individuals do win, stringent damage caps preclude awards that compensate to the full extent of the loss. In Texas, a family who said their son’s skull was crushed during birth and suffered severe brain damage recovered the maximum award of $500,000 — an amount eaten up by medical bills in just the first three weeks of his life. The boy’s father was a small business owner, and had been a public supporter of damage caps until he experienced what that meant for him. He is now an outspoken opponent of damage caps. Texas, which has recently seen one of the highest corporate win rates of 85 percent, saw a deluge of corporate money in the mid-1990s after a court ruling invalidated a state damages cap. Thanks both to elections spending and political lobbying for so-called “tort reform,” the state now has some of the strictest limits on liability for negligent health care providers. And in a sign that this insulation from liability really does affect corporate accountability, Texas now also holds the title of number one in workplace fatalities, and has more than three times the number of accidents, and four times the number of injuries and deaths as the second-ranking state, Illinois.