It’s hard to consume the news these days without seeing stories about terrible things happening. But sometimes, new legal rights come from very horrible wrongs.
That’s because we believe that no one is above the law, and all people, organizations and governments should be held accountable when their behavior recklessly harms others.
In Colorado, there are some high-profile examples of how wrongs turned into good policy and new laws, forging a better path for public safety and individual rights:
- The Lofgren family – a couple and their 8- and 10-year old children – won a weekend getaway to multimillion-dollar luxury home near Aspen. The entire family died because a faulty snowmelt system pumped carbon monoxide into the home, where there was no carbon monoxide detector. Colorado law now requires carbon monoxide detectors within 15 feet of all bedrooms in homes that have gas furnaces.
- Michael Casper purchased a cancer insurance policy to provide benefits if he were diagnosed with cancer. Seven months after the purchase, Casper was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the insurance company denied coverage. Casper won his trial but died nine days afterward. Eventually the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in his favor posthumously and that opinion created a new law that prevents future denials to people diagnosed with cancer.
- Shiva Rai, a severely autistic non-communicative student, was mentally and physically abused for more than a year by a St. Vrain Valley school district bus aide who kicked him, hit him, verbally assaulted him and sprayed disinfectant in his face. The bus driver told no one of the abuse. After the abuse was discovered, St. Vrain District was found liable at trial. The school district entered into an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights to prevent future abuse by requiring mandatory qualifications for employees working with students with disabilities, retaining security recordings and a training plan for employees.
These cases – and many others like them – share a common thread: they allowed justice for people who suffered horribly through no fault of their own, and the outcome helped prevent future similar tragedies.
The civil justice system is a powerful tool in creating policy and legal changes when other systems are unable to overcome society’s obstacles. It is often the only option to hold corporations, governments and people accountable for their actions.
As we have witnessed in recent years, politics can obstruct policy and legal changes, even when public opinion overwhelmingly supports the change.
That’s when other institutions must step in to protect individual rights, civil rights and the rights of those who can’t stand up for themselves against powerful and overwhelming forces.
Justice comes in many forms, and we are fortunate to live in a society that gives people more than one path, including the civil justice system, for fair and effective solutions when the powerful organizations and people behave irresponsibly.
That we have preserved this right for every citizen, no matter their status, should give everyone some solace in difficult times.
Michael Nimmo is a Denver attorney and president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association