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Consumer Law: ThePopTort
Toasting Good News Where We Can
By Alicia Young
Today is a hell of a day for bad news. The market is sliding. There?s a Bay of Pigs-like standoff between North and South Korea. And all the kings? horses and all the kings? men still can?t stop oil from gushing into the Gulf.
Yet, even in the darkness there are glimmers of light. Two of this week?s brightest beacons are from the Supreme Court. And these two decisions deserve a toast.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a group of African-American applicants to the Chicago Fire Department could proceed with their claim that a hiring test was discriminatory.
The Court also unanimously held that an employee can recover her attorneys? fees should her claim for benefits end in her favor. It?s worth mentioning in this case that the employee, Ms. Bridget Hart, incurred almost $60,000 in attorney fees while trying to get the insurance company to pay little over $55,00 of benefits they owed her because of her job-related injury. In other words, the insurance company dragged its feet, resisted paying the benefits at every step of the way (which really should not be the par for course that it is), and Ms. Hardt had to get an attorney to help get her benefits. The insurance company agreed to pay the benefits -- after a lower court told them they might want to reconsider in light of the facts -- but then refused to pay Ms. Hardt's attorney fees. The Supreme Court -- in an opinion written by none other than Justice Clarence Thomas himself (I told you there was cause for celebration) -- ruled that the insurance company did indeed have to pay the attorney fees and costs.
What can I say: we get pretty happy when average folks like the firefighters are allowed to have their day in court to seek resolution of injustice. And it makes us warm and fuzzy inside that employees can use the courts to pursue benefits from insurance companies, and do so with strong representation --- since lawyers know that if they do a good job on a strong claim and obtain the benefits denied, that they will not have invested all their time and resources for nothing.
Most days, poor John Adams is spinning in his grave over the beating our civil justice system is taking. (It was he who wrote in 1774: ?Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.?) Heck, there are some who are even saying that ? with the way things are going, we won?t have a tort system in 50 years.
But let me slow down a bit: ?civil justice.? ?Tort system.? Those are just fancy words left over from what we borrowed from the English when we decided to set up our own system in America. (I know ? ?decided? is somewhat of an understatement considering all the blood that?s been shed.)
What it means is what anyone who watches television knows: in this country, the average person has the right to ask an impartial judge or jury to decide whether he or she has been wronged. And if the person has been wronged, there are all kinds of ways of figuring what would be necessary to make him or her right again.
Although battered and attacked by a public relations arsenal relentlessly fortified by corporate dollars, the right to have one?s day in court still exists. Barely.
Too often, we hear stories like Marine Corporal Yuriy Zmysly?s: after surviving two war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, this soldier comes home and suffers a severe brain injury at a military base hospital. His wife tried to hold the hospital accountable by bringing suit. But because of what?s known as the Feres Doctrine, active military personnel can?t sue the government for medical malpractice.
So we?re happy to hear that the firefighters in Chicago have an opportunity to remain in court and continue exercising their right to have their case heard. And although Ms. Hardt must still deal with her work-related injury, we?re happy that she got the benefits she was owed. With all that?s going on the world today, gains that uphold the valiant principles on which this country still stands must be celebrated.
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