Candidate Called A 'Tool of Trial Lawyers'

By Michael L. Betsch | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Some small business owners in the Lone Star State are questioning the integrity of a Democratic candidate who promises to make health care more affordable, yet bankrolls his campaign with the help of donations from trial lawyers.

Ron Kirk, the ex-Dallas mayor currently running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Phil Gramm says his "common sense" approach to supporting small businesses includes tax simplification, lower taxes, more access to loans and health care that is less expensive and more accessible.

But the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) blames trial lawyers for preventing small businesses from being able to afford health care for their families and employees, and Kirk, they say, is the "tool of trial lawyers." The NFIB says Kirk has received $500,000 in contributions from trial lawyers.

NFIB spokesman Matt Garth said Kirk's been doing a significant amount of fundraising outside of Texas, appearing at events specifically targeted to bring in donations from Washington, D.C. trial lawyers. That money will also come with strings attached, Garth said.

"If you're going to be beholden to somebody, we'd rather it be to the single mom doing daycare out of her house, the corner florist or the corner lumber sales shop guy," Garth said "rather than some rich trial lawyer who's out there suing people and raising the price of doing business for everybody."

Garth said medical malpractice lawsuit abuse by trial lawyers is one of the primary reasons why the small business community can't afford health care. "For Kirk to accept any campaign contribution from trial lawyers, especially $500,000, is a stab in the back to small business," he said.

The NFIB is urging Texas' small business community to support Kirk's Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General, John Cornyn.

"John Cornyn has long been an advocate of tort reform and has spoken out several times on various aspects of tort reform," said Cornyn's Policy Director, Matt Winslow. "You name it, he's in favor of ending the litigation lottery."

According to Winslow, 80-percent of medical malpractice suits in Texas are dismissed without payment made by the health care provider or physician. That means health insurance companies are faced with the burden of paying attorneys just to get frivolous suits filed by trial lawyers dismissed, he said.

"It's absolutely out of control here. I mean, when four out of five lawsuits are dismissed, that tells you you've got a serious problem."

Winslow said medical malpractice lawsuits have forced Texas obstetricians to cease delivering babies for fear of being sued. Out of the 254 counties in the state, he said over 100 do not have a doctor who offers pre-natal care or delivers babies.

Cathy DeWitt, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Business (TAB), blames trial lawyers for a recent federal report that listed Texas as the state with the most uninsured employees in the nation. The TAB and its 140,000 members blame trial lawyers for promoting a "lawsuit lottery" at the expense of small businesses' ability to afford health coverage.

According to DeWitt, when trial lawyers have the "reign of the state" with frivolous lawsuits, everything is going to be more expensive for small businesses and consumers.

DeWitt said TAB is endorsing Cornyn because he has proven himself to be an advocate of small business, as opposed to Kirk, who, Dewitt added, has made it clear that he is a friend of trial lawyers.

Carlton Carl, spokesman for the American Trial Lawyer Association of America, believes small-business advocacy groups are using trial lawyers as a scapegoat in order to promote their "corporate welfare" agenda.

Carl said groups such as the NFIB are really in the business of supporting health insurance companies and attacking trial lawyers.

"They act as surrogates for the consumers and workers who some of their members injure," he said. "They want to shift the cost of causing injury to the people who are injured and ultimately to all taxpayers, so they don't have to pay."

If the NFIB is concerned about eliminating medical malpractice lawsuits, Carl said, the best way to do that is by eliminating medical malpractice.

Carl faults the health insurance industry for making health insurance in Texas too expensive for many employers to afford.

Bad business decisions, bad investments and a weakened economy have all had a dramatic impact on the health insurance industry's profits, he said. In order to restore profits, insurers have raised premiums making it more expensive for employers to afford.

So, don't blame skyrocketing health insurance premiums on trial lawyers and malpractice lawsuits, Carl said. "That's just nonsense."

Numerous attempts by to get reaction from Ron Kirk or a campaign spokesperson went unanswered.

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