The Rise of the Shark

2001 may long be remembered as the year of the shark. No, I’m not talking about the carnivorous sort that has been terrifying swimmers along the Eastern shores of the United States. The shark I’m thinking of is trial lawyer-turned-Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

In 2001, Senator Edwards has used the skills he developed as “the most successful trial lawyer in North Carolina” to propel himself into the national spotlight and the lead on issues ranging from health care regulation to Internet privacy. Virtually unknown when he upset incumbent Lauch Faircloth in 1998, Senator Edwards has become the de facto spokesperson for the Democrats on the political talk show circuit. Telegenic and articulate, Edwards is the elected official most likely to be seen on Sunday morning television.

In the 20 years that preceded his upset victory, Edwards gained a reputation as one of the most prominent personal injury and medical malpractice litigators in the nation. Edwards earned so much from suits against doctors, insurers, and businesses that he largely self-financed his ’98 election. During the campaign, Edwards used the wealth derived from suing health care professionals to bolster his image: Edwards’ TV commercials proclaimed him “the people’s senator” because he refused to take contributions from political action committees.

Far from being ashamed of his past, Edwards boasts about it. “I make no apologies for what I spent my life doing. I am proud of what I did,” Edwards said in a speech to fellow trial lawyers this summer. “For the rest of my life I wear it as a badge of honor.”

Edwards has also been active in recruiting and developing the next generation of trial lawyers. Before becoming Senator, Edwards often lectured groups of budding trial lawyers on the need to dramatize a defendant’s net worth to the jury. In a memorable case in West Virginia, a trial lawyer employed this strategy in a way that would make Edwards proud: The trial lawyer asked the defendant, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist, how much he charged for a sinus procedure ($2000) and how many of those procedures the doctor performs in a year (about 200). The trial lawyer then wrote down the figures and multiplied them on a chalkboard in front of the jury. Needless to say, the jury awarded a sizable verdict.

During the Senate “Patients’ Bill of Rights” debate, many commentators thought it was unseemly for a former trial lawyer to lead the charge for a bill that was essentially written by trial lawyers. But once again, Edwards was able to deflect the criticism to emerge triumphant. In fact, one of Edwards’ most memorable Meet the Press appearances was a debate on the issue with Dr. Bill Frist of Tennessee. Like he routinely did in the courtroom, Senator Edwards denounced the profits of health insurers and second-guessed the doctor’s judgment. Edwards’s Patient’s Bill of Rights legislation passed the Senate weeks later.

On the Internet privacy issue, Edwards is again sponsoring legislation hand-tailored for trial lawyers. His bill would open all Web sites that fail to meet an arbitrarily defined privacy standard to class-action lawsuits. Each member of the class would be worth $2500 and the suit would be heard in the court “where the computer software concerned was installed or used,” which means the state court of the trial lawyer’s choosing. If made law, the trial lawyers will be able to sink their teeth into millions in legal fees and no business will be safe from the class-action shakedown that will surely result.

Senator Edwards term expires in 2004, but attendees of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America’s (ATLA) annual summer convention suspect that he will be running for a different office that year. “To say he’s the right person at the right place at the right time is one of the greatest understatements I’ll ever make,” said Fred Baron, the ATLA’s outgoing president on Edwards’s possible run for the White House.

What’s good for trial lawyers, however, is rarely good for consumers because they are the ones forced to pay for lawsuits through higher prices for everything from electronics, to insurance premiums, to doctors’ bills. The total cost of the Tort system in 2000 was estimated to be as high as $200 billion, and worse, this lawsuit abuse harms regular citizens with real grievances by clogging the courts with these frivolous suits.

If Edwards does run for President, he would certainly be a formidable candidate. Unqualified support from trial lawyers would make Edwards nearly unbeatable in the Democratic primary given the legal profession’s increasing influence within the party and its unrivaled political giving – over $250 million to Democrats during the past decade. With billions from tobacco settlements ready to be reinvested in politics, trial lawyers could play the role of kingmaker in 2004 with John Edwards as their king.

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