We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
With these words, on July 4, 1776, 56 men (including 34 lawyers) declared United States independence.
When was the last time actually read the Declaration of Independence? Included in the Declaration of Independence is a list of Oppressions identified by the Founders justifying their Declaration.
We’re familiar with many items on the list, including perhaps most notably "For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent."
But did you know that elimination of the right to trial by jury was also a listed Oppression of the King?
"For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:"
The right of citizens to trial by jury was of such importance to our Founding Fathers that it was included in the list of Oppressions by the King in support of the Declaration of Independence. The right was also ensured in the Bill of Rights as the 7th Amendment to the Constitution.
For the true story about the importance of the American civil justice system, check out the HBO documentary film Hot Coffee. Hot Coffee is available on HBO on Demand until mid-September, 2011 and available on HBO GO on line through 2012.
The Founders understood the importance of the right to trial by jury. Yet this fundamental right "endowed by [our] Creator" is under nearly constant attack today. Corporations require you to sign this right away when purchasing something as mundane as a cell phone or concert ticket. Commentators disparage this fundamental right as nothing more than "frivolous lawsuits", "lawsuit abuse" and "jackpot justice".
The Founders understood, as we should today, that the right to trial by jury is the ultimate lynch pin for all other rights. What is your remedy if someone violates your constitutional rights to free speech, to religious freedom, to keep and bear arms, to contract, etc.? These are civil law (or civil justice) claims in which you take the bad actor to court in order to have your rights protected. What happens when access to courts is limited? What happens when you can’t bring even a meritorious lawsuit because of the risk of financial ruin under a European loser pays system? What happens when access to court is so lopsided that the average person cannot gain access? What happens when powerful lobbyists control the courts like they control other branches of government?
The Founders understood — and perhaps we should be reminded — that we as a society must take responsibility when we wrong someone. If we are not accountable for our actions, then society if forced to pay for our transgressions and care for those we hurt.
Imagine someone is injured by a defective product, a drunk driver, or some other negligent actor. When individuals or corporations avoid responsibility and accountability, who bears that cost? Who makes sure the brain damaged child receives the care and treatment she needs for the rest of her life? Who provides the rehabilitation and followup care for the paralyzed mother? Who provides care for the orphaned children?
When "tort reform" bails out irresponsible individuals and corporations, tax payers end up with the bill. Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid pays for the medical care that should be born by the responsible party. Welfare, food stamps and other government assistance pays for housing, shelter, transportation and other basic needs that should be born by the responsible party. Many victims are left to financial ruin, bankruptcy and poverty because the responsible party avoids responsibility and accountability.
For these reasons, leading conservatives across the country have rejected tort reforms and the erosion of our fundamental liberty and God-given rights.
[More on your 7th Amendment Rights]
Eric Turkewitz has also written on this subject for several years. Read his post July 2nd: A Day to Celebrate Independence (And Celebrate Juries) at his New York Personal Injury Law Blog.
[Ed. note: The Did You Know… series which normally appears on Monday will return next week.]
(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.