By Eren Orellana, Congress Watch legal intern and Susan Harley, Congress Watch Deputy Director
Recently, consumer advocate and Public Citizen founder, Ralph Nader hosted Breaking Through Power, a four-day conference highlighting the different ways Americans can work together to organize change in a political system that has been overrun by wealthy corporate special interests. A longtime advocate for consumer rights, starting in the automobile industry, Nader dedicated the last day of the conference to speaking about the underutilization of the civil law system.
Special topics included “The Need to Educate the Public on The Importance of Tort Law” and “Why Lawsuits are Good for America.” In a panel discussion titled “Plaintiffs for Justice” victims shared their stories and their road to advocacy. Laura Christian, an auto safety advocate, urged the need to create a system that regulates and provides notice of recalls to buyers and existing owners of used cars. Todd Anderson, a victims advocate, shared the personal story of his son’s death. Anderson’s son was killed in a car accident due to an automobile malfunction that he was not notified of in time to correct. Susan Vento, a mesothelioma advocate, spoke about the need to ban asbestos and the legal rights victims of mesothelioma have against corporate negligence. Overall, the panelists pushed the point that greater advocacy is needed to improve consumer protections and positively increase the utilization of the court system.
In the much-anticipated session “Litigating for Justice,” renowned trial lawyer, Thomas Girardi spoke about how corporations attempt to shame lawyers and how he has succeeded in trying his cases and breaking the stigma associated with personal injury suits. In 1970 Girardi became the first attorney to win a one million dollar award for a medical malpractice case. However, Girardi is best known for the part he played in the Pacific Gas & Electric case of the Hinkley groundwater contamination. In that case, residents of Hinkley brought a class-action suit against PG&E for claims of contamination of the town’s water supply due to a leak from PG&E’s gas compressing station. The leak apparently began as early as the 1950’s and the residents did not receive notice until 1987. The residents blamed incidents of cancer and other diseases on the contaminated water and in 1996 PG&E settled the suit and agreed to pay the town’s residents $333 million. This case was the inspiration for the film Erin Brockovich.
More recently, Girardi was on the team of lawyers who tried Bryan Stow’s case. Bryan Stow was the man brutally beaten after a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Girardi reasoned that the Dodgers and the stadium’s personnel were partially to blame for the incident due to a lack of organized and effective security personnel, which was not suited to handle such large crowds. Girardi described his pride in the fact that after winning the verdict of Stow’s case, Dodger Stadium heightened security and started regulating the consumption of alcohol during games.
In addition to the important monetary compensation lawyers, like Girardi, earn for their clients in these cases, there is the societal benefit of trying these cases. Win or lose, civil law cases bring to light many of the ways corporations fail to protect consumers, sometimes even at the cost of death. These cases expose corporate lawbreakers and force them to better protect their customers. Utilizing the justice system to compensate victims has proven to be one of the best mechanisms to hold corporations accountable. Conferences like Breaking Through Power are doing a great service to society by bringing this very powerful tool to light. Even better, videos from the conference are available so you too can learn how to join the Breaking Through Power movement.
– Eren Orellana
Last week, Ralph Nader headlined a panel at the 2016 Freedom of Information Summit focused on dissecting the challenges facing the open government movement, but also celebrating the victories. At the top of the list of successes is the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA,) which gives the public the right to access government records subject to nine limited exemptions. Recently having celebrated the 50th anniversary of FOIA’s passage, the panel on which Nader spoke was aptly entitled “FOIA at 50.”
Nader and the other panelists spoke about critical consumer protections that were achieved as a direct result of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA. The panelists also addressed areas where the law continues to fall short, even after the open government community’s recent victory in securing passage of bipartisan FOIA reforms that were signed into law by President Barack Obama right before the law hit its 50 year mark.
It was especially moving to hear the other panelists speak so eloquently about the steadfast commitment that Public Citizen has to protecting FOIA. Notably, for most of the organization’s 45 year history, our litigation group has been a national leader in upholding the public’s right-to-know. Getting access to government records had uncovered threats to public health, safety, and the nation’s financial security. This law is an invaluable tool for holding the government accountable and ensuring it is acting in the public’s best interest.
Nader said it best during the panel: FOIA is the ultimate tool of democracy.
— Susan Harley (@Susan_Citizen) October 7, 2016
And Public Citizen will be there for the next 45 years protecting our right-to-know.