Wednesday, April 21, 2010

''Appeal''ing Lawyers ?!

I never read the synopsis of a book (the few lines at the back that you read through that help you decide if you actually want to read the book) unless it is by an author I have never read before. I just finished the book, The Appeal by John Grisham and while I was thinking about the book, I turned it over and I was kind of shocked to see a sentence in the synopsis exactly voicing my thoughts - a story that will leave readers unable to think about the electoral process or judicail system in quite the same way ever again.

I love Grisham for the lack of sensationalism in his books. In fact, a few of them were considered so mundane that many of my friends refused to read or complete those books. Ofcourse he does have books where the hero, a smart lawyer, gets away with stealing millions of dollars from the bad guys but I am referring to those that make you learn, then pause and close the book for a while when you think, contemplate and wonder about why certain things are the way they are. The Appeal was one such book.

It starts with a trial between a chemical company, that dumps toxic wastes and contaminates drinking water (remember Erin Brockowich ?) causing cancer and other illnesses in people and 2 lawyers who defend the victims. The jury awards the victim around 43 million dollars as compensation. The victim in this case is a woman who has lost both her husband and child to cancer. There is a rather a gut-wrenching scene on the day of the verdict when the woman visits their graves and relives the memories of seeing both her dearest ones waste away in front of her eyes. At that point, it made me wonder how the 43 million dollars was going to be of any use whatsoever to her. Leaving the emotions aside, it will probably give her some financial stability and eventually, maybe even the strength to start a new family.

But the book runs on a different and rather dangerous course where the chemical company appeals the verdict in the supreme court and decides to get its way by electing one of its ''own'' to as the supreme court justice. The choice of an unsuspecting candidate, the mud-slinging-on-opponents campaign and the obscene amount of money involved really made me sick to the stomach. I agree that undeserving candidates and dirty elections are not unfortunately uncommon in a democracy but bringing a supreme court justice into the loop is scary, downright scary ! Irrespective of everything that happens today, the law always gives people hope and the supreme court is probably the highest place of refuge - sanctum sanctoram !

Liability laws seem to touch two extremes since there is a fine line between guaranteeing quality and consumer discretion. For example, a customer suing the coffee company for the coffee being too hot, according to me, is a mockery of the system. On the other end, prescription drugs, drugs that a normal person without medical knowledge would take purely based on the trust in the doctor, are subject to a higher degree of liability. Since the doctor's word carries a lot of weight, they are another bunch of people who constantly live in the fear of being sued. Yes, one should not make any errors when dealing with people's lives but they are human too ! Apparently most doctors in the US are heavily insured w.r.t liabilities (or in other words, the limit to which they can make errors ! I can't even believe liability insurance actually exists!).....why is going to a doctor with a really high liability insurance not a comforting thought ??

Mass-tort lawyers abusing every opportunity they get with class-actions is another example (Grisham has a book on this topic too - King of torts - would make you hate money-hungry lawyers even more, if you don't already). It refers to greedy lawyers trying to make the most out of a verdict i.e if the chemical company paid compensation to one victim, the mass-tort lawyers would try to gather as many victims as possible and will try to negotiate a settlement with the company, for example, 100,000 dollars per victim. In the end, they would take a sizeable percentage of the settlement as attorney's fees.

The other disturbing angle was the chemical company's choice to immediately shift base to Mexico as soon as there was the slightest chance of litigation. When a country like the US, with its laws, juries and trials cannot protect its people from toxic carcinogens, what happens to those in Mexico ? How are their lives any less important ? Was this the same logic that led to the Bhopal gas tragedy ? The company's page on the subject is laughable, its actually a very cruel joke ! Reading about it only causes more pain due to the helplessness that one feels ! Why is it hard to understand that industrial promotion should promote human survival and not otherwise ?!

Somehow it always boils down to money....something that was intended to be just a replacement for the barter system so that one can get goods even if one did not have the goods to exchange and today it drives the quality of the goods and lives of everyone associated with it....the system's biggest irony indeed !
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