There is a significant amount of public narrative and hand-wringing these days over the state of our public institutions, but we take hope from the resiliency of the civil-justice system and its ability to strengthen and re-orient our values.
Yes, there have been stress tests on our democratic infrastructure, but there are many recent examples to demonstrate that our civil-justice system can pack a punch that matters.
Justice comes in many forms and unlike the criminal justice system, the civil-justice system is designed to hold people and corporations or companies accountable via financial compensation for a victim who was harmed through little or no fault of their own.
In civil cases, citizen juries are given the power to hear the facts and decide the financial awards to victims to penalize those that inflicted the harm. The juries’ ability to award damages sends a message to prevent future harmful behavior to protect others and underscores that similar behavior will not be tolerated if it is repeated.
The civil-justice system is rooted in the idea that no one is above the law and the average person can seek accountability from physical or financial harm inflicted through negligence, incompetence or intentional actions. It is our peers — juries of average citizens — who decide the financial awards to make amends. In other words, even the powerful and wealthy have to face the consequences of their actions through citizen scrutiny.
Civil lawsuits are one of the best tools available to fight outrageous conduct that threatens our society’s norms and relationships. Left unchecked, egregious behavior can spread like a virus.
These lawsuits require a courageous person to stand up for themselves and others to right a wrong, and a lawyer willing to take on a risky case that often involves years of work and millions of dollars to help change the law, hold corporations and people accountable and make the world a safer and better place.
Recently, some high-profile civil cases have highlighted critical issues that define our sense of shared community can be solved through civil litigation:
A federal lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the corporation that produced the addictive pain-killing drug OxyContin resulted in a $4.5 billion settlement. Oxy was part of a massive U.S. prescription drug opioid crisis that killed an estimated 247,000 people from 1999-2019. But a federal judge recently tossed out the agreement because it shielded the Sackler family members, who controlled Purdue, from accountability and gave Purdue some bankruptcy protection.
The case is on appeal, and there are thousands more cases against Purdue and the Sackler family waiting to be filed if the settlement agreement is permanently declared void.
Monsanto Corporation was held accountable for marketing Roundup weedkiller despite knowing for decades that the product caused cancer. California landowner Edwin Hardeman used Roundup weed killer for three decades and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he filed a lawsuit against the corporation.
His was the first and only federal trial (which included one Colorado attorney on his team) to find Monsanto culpable for selling Roundup without warning consumers. The case also gained worldwide attention after revealing documents that proved Monsanto had knowledge of the dangers associated with Roundup since the 1970’s.
A Charlottesville, Va., jury decided the hate groups that organized a 2017 anti-American rally should pay more than $26 million in damages because of state conspiracy violations, intimidation, harassment and violent behavior based on racial, religious and ethnic animosity that resulted in many injuries and one death.
These are all examples of individuals taking a stand to hold powerful forces to account for their actions. Most of these people were subjected to public ridicule, resulting in fear for their own lives and their families’ safety. Their personal pain led them to their actions, but their strength to see it through has wider consequences.
The results of the cases reverberate by curbing outrageous behavior that could threaten both individuals and community values.
Finally, we should note that civil cases are currently being delayed in many Colorado judicial districts due to the spike in COVID-19 omicron variant cases, but given their potential outsized impacts, they should resume — either virtually or in-person — as soon as public health allows.
Jason Jordan, of Parker, is president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association. Kari Jones Dulin, of Denver, is vice-president of CTLA. Both are Denver attorneys.
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