Lawsuit opposition group tied to tobacco
A Louisiana organization working to stop frivolous lawsuits was started with the help of donations from tobacco companies, a study has found.
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which bills itself as a grass-roots organization of people concerned about a civil justice system run amok, was actually founded in 1992 with the help of the tobacco industry, which provided financing directly and indirectly, according to the study by a national consumer organization.
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and Louisianians for Legal Reform, a related group, were started as part of a national network of "front groups" that got money and strategic help from big tobacco and other large corporations, the study says.
The study's authors combed through thousands of documents released in connection with states' lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers as well as tort reform groups' applications for tax-exempt status. In many cases, tobacco firms contributed money to industry associations, lobbyists or law firms, which then passed money along to anti-lawsuit organizations in several states, the study says.
But Louisiana stood out, said Joanne Doroshow, one of the study's authors and executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy.
"It is the only CALA group in the country where we could actually find that the tobacco industry directly set them up and contributed enormously to their existence," Doroshow said. "There was no attempt to hide the contributions. In other states, there seemed to be an effort to funnel the money through a (Washington D.C.) law firm."
In one memo, Philip Morris takes credit for helping organize Louisiana Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which helped defeat all "trial lawyer- advocated tort proposals" in the 1992 legislative session. Tobacco industry documents also show a $310,000 tort reform budget for Louisiana in 1995, including $130,000 to CALA and $100,000 to Louisianians for Legal Reform.
John Sorrells, a director of communications at Philip Morris, said the company does not disclose the recipients of its donations but said it, like the majority of Americans, supports changes in the legal system.
"We fund a variety of groups, and we certainly support tort reform," Sorrells said. "I don't think it is any secret we are sympathetic."
Nor is tobacco's underwriting of tort reform groups a surprise to trial lawyer Wendell Gauthier, who helped launch the legal assault on tobacco companies in the mid-1990s.
"We knew it, but we could never get anyone's attention," he said. "They are pretending to be a group concerned about the public interest when in fact it was founded by a group that kills 400,000 people a year."
Ron Gomez, executive director of Louisiana Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, called the study silly.
"We solicit from industry and businesses and individuals and have well over 400 contributors," he said. "We have doctors and grocery store owners, and we do get major contributions from major industries."
In an IRS filing, CALA said it received $234,000 from Louisianians for Legal Reform in 1992 and another $75,000 in 1993. It also listed contributions in excess of $1,000 from Louisiana Power & Light, Freeport- McMoRan, Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, Texaco and Georgia Pacific.
"There was a broad spectrum of businesses involved. It was not just tobacco," said Gomez, a former Lafayette legislator and vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state's largest business lobby. He took over Louisiana CALA in 1996.
"I have not had any contributions from tobacco, but I am sure their money reaches us," he said.
He accused the study's authors of "shouting from a glass house" because one of the sponsors, Public Citizen, gets financing from trial lawyers.
At Philip Morris, Sorrells called the connection "ironic."
But study authors say they simply wanted to shine a little light on the relationship.
"The purpose of our report was to expose the hypocrisy of presenting the group as a grass-roots organization spontaneously formed due to sudden concern about lawsuit abuse," Doroshow said. "It wasn't anything of the sort. This was part of a very orchestrated major corporate campaign."
Most recently, the Louisiana group has financed billboards in judicial elections, warning voters against "trial lawyer candidates."
Ken Carter, one of several attorneys for Louisiana in its lawsuit against the tobacco industry, said such attacks come with the territory.
"Wherever trial lawyers have had success, there has been a movement to discredit them and even destroy them," Carter said. "We get the brunt of it."