The young professional couple had been burned badly. There was frustration in their voices, vengeance in their hearts and a lawsuit lurking in the back of their minds the first time they called. They were a columnist's dream, living symbols of a problem.
They'd been stood up by a moving company, literally left on the doorstep when the moving van didn't show up on what was supposed to be their last day in Washington.
He was already en route to their new home, and she was left with the kids, the dog and a 48-hour disaster. After perfunctory apologies, the movers admitted they had deliberately overbooked and come up short of vans; "we'll try to have a truck there tomorrow afternoon." Of course, the people who'd bought the house were planning to move in in the morning. Excedrin headaches would have been a pleasure compared with what the family went through that weekend.
Weeks later, the moving company reluctantly, begrudgingly, with not a twinge of remorse, agreed to pay their weekend motel bill plus a couple hundred bucks of other out-of-pocket expenses.
"Is that all we get?" the couple asked last week. What about the two-day nightmare, the screaming kids, the anxiety, irritation and emotional damage? Somebody ought to make them pay, the victims argued. Otherwise what's to stop them from doing this to other people?
Shouldn't businesses that do wrong by their customers have to pay?
That question goes far beyond innocent yuppies who lost a weekend out of their lives because of an unscrupulous moving company. It affects the women who suffered miscarriages, infections and death due to the Dalkon Shield made by A. H. Robins Co. And the people who died after taking Oraflex, the arthritis drug once made by Eli Lilly and Co.
Each of these cases provides evidence that America has no idea what to do about rogue businesses. We have no effective system for compensating the victims of business misdeeds. We have no good way of punishing the wrongdoers.
The courts are no help, nor are government regulators.
Look at how the regulators handled the case of Oraflex, a drug the government says has been "possibly linked" to 49 deaths in this country. Lilly admitted it did not disclose that it knew four people had died and six others had become ill after taking Oraflex. It is a violation of federal law not to report adverse reactions to a new drug; Lilly pleaded guilty.
So what did our government do? It gave Lilly a limp-wristed slap and charged the company with 25 misdemeanors, each carrying a $1,000 fine. A $25,000 fine for covering up facts that might have prevented 49 deaths.
If the alleged victims of Oraflex are to get justice, it will have to come in the courts, where dozens of lawsuits are now pending.
What happens to the Oraflex cases will depend not on whether the company did right or wrong, but on how the plaintiffs' lawyers do in court. If they outpoint Lilly's lawyers and persuade a jury to award punitive or compensatory damages, the attorneys may win millions for their clients or their heirs. If they screw up or are overpowered by Lilly's legal staff, their clients may not get much.
If there are a hundred different lawsuits and a hundred different courts, there will be a hundred different verdicts. Not all of them will be just, but all of them will be justice as we know it.
Similar injustices are already occurring in the thousands of lawsuits filed over the Dalkon Shield, the intrauterine birth control device once made by A. H. Robins Co. of Richmond. The company has been fighting every claim, insisting its IUD is no more dangerous than any other. Robins has been winning some cases, but losing most of them -- losing so many that last week it filed for bankruptcy court protection in hopes of minimizing its losses.
Robins' decision to duck into bankruptcy court is, by any reasonable standard of business ethics, a dirty trick. Robins is not bankrupt, not even close to it, not even after paying -- with the help of its insurance company -- $378 million in Dalkon Shield damages and another $107 million in legal fees. What Robins is trying to do is cut its losses, put a ceiling on the cost of the 5,100 Dalkon Shield claims that are still pending and avoid having its remaining assets nibbled to death, one verdict at a time.
Filing for bankruptcy is a dirty trick, but who can blame them? There is no more justice for Robins in the trial-by-tort system than there is for the women who were killed or maimed by the Dalkon Shield. Some of them have gotten millions, others not a dime. It depends on the whim of judge and jury, the denouement of duels between courtroom gladiators.
When the legal fees in any series of cases top $100 million, it's clear that lawyers are part of the problem. Without aggressive plaintiffs' counsel, there would be no compensation for the victims of corporate crimes. But the lawyers are largely responsible for the entire nation's befuddled view of how victims of wrongs should be compensated.
We have developed not only a legal system but also a national mindset that cannot distinguish between the trivial and the tragic when it comes to injury.
Our courts cannot provide justice to either party in tragedies like the Dalkon Shield, yet we continue to insist we are entitled to punitive compensation when the moving van doesn't show up on time. I'm sympathetic with those folks, but the implications of their demand for recompense are more outrageous than the wrong they suffered.
No less trivializing to our court system is the lawsuit filed in Virginia recently by a woman who, while pregnant, was accused of trying to shoplift a basketball from a sporting goods store. They took her in the back room and made her prove she wasn't hiding the ball under her maternity top. The improbable incident undoubtedly wasn't funny to her, but is a few minutes of hassle any justification for the $500,000 claim for punitive damages she has filed?
Egged on by our legal advisers, we have come to believe that for every wrong, there is a right to compensation in the courts.
It is difficult for us to admit that may not be the case. But we have to begin acknowledging that lawyer-to-lawyer combat is not the only way to assess blame and determine damages. There has to be a better way.