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Messenger: When Greitens says trial lawyers' 'time is up,' real Missourians pay the price

Messenger: When Greitens says trial lawyers' 'time is up,' real Missourians pay the price

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Gov. Greitens delivers first State of the State address

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens delivers his State of the State address at the State Capitol in Jefferson City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Everybody loves a good lawyer joke.

Like politicians, used-car salesmen, and, well, journalists, especially those of us in the lame-stream biz, they’re easy to poke fun at. So it should be of little surprise that Gov. Eric Greitens saved his most vitriolic language in his first State of the State address for the men and women of the legal profession, specifically, trial lawyers.

Make that nasty trial lawyers.

“We’re the place where the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty, and engage in lawsuits so murky, they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else,” Greitens said. “Our judicial system is broken, and the trial lawyers who have broken it, well, their time is up.”

In targeting trial lawyers, Greitens, a Republican, is continuing an age-old partisan fight in Missouri. Republicans, at the behest of the big businesses such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that fund them, have long targeted trial attorneys, who by and large fund Democrats with their campaign donations. There have been epic battles in Missouri over medical malpractice caps and other changes to state law intended to protect businesses from lawsuits.

Talking tough about faceless trial attorneys is easy.

Thinking about the effect so-called legal reforms would have on the victims they represent is another matter. People like Dylan Blankenship.

Dylan was six months old in 2004 when he attracted a blood-borne bacterial infection. His parents, Dewayne and Suzanne Blankenship of Fenton, took him to an emergency room. The doctors there never even unzipped his onesie. They sent him home. He died the next day.

The Blankenships sued and in August 2009 a St. Louis jury awarded them $6 million in damages, in what was the largest such award that year. Had the lawsuit been filed a year later, the jury could have awarded whatever number they wanted and it wouldn’t have mattered. That’s because in 2005, the Missouri Legislature took away a jury’s power to make such decisions.

That was the last time a Republican governor in Missouri and a compliant GOP Legislature took aim at trial lawyers. They passed medical malpractice caps. The law was eventually overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court because it violated the state’s strong Seventh Amendment protections to a right to a trial by a jury. The trial lawyer who filed the case that eventually overturned the med-mal caps was the same one who represented Dylan and his parents, David Zevan of St. Louis.

Back in 2009, he told me lawmakers have their thinking wrong when they attack trial attorneys.

“It’s not about lawyers or doctors,” Zevan said. “It’s not about money. They have to understand that in Jefferson City.”

Zevan’s time is up, Greitens said in announcing his support for numerous changes to state law that would diminish Seventh Amendment protections in favor of business. But when he says “their time is up,” he’s also referring to people like Brian Cook.

Cook is a Marine Corps veteran and former Golden Gloves boxing champion. He grew up in St. Louis public housing projects and lives in Columbia now, where he teaches kids boxing. In 2006, Cook bought a Jeep Cherokee from a local car dealer, whose owner later went to prison for fraud. Cook’s Jeep was stolen and wrecked. He was properly insured and was reimbursed for the damage. But the check didn’t go to Cook. It went to the financing company. Before it sent his proceeds to him, the financing company went out of business, but not until it sold the paper on Cook’s car to a debt buyer. That company sued Cook, claiming he owed $453 over a bogus service contract. Cook’s lawyer, Dave Angle of Columbia, sued and found out the finance company was pulling this scam on many Missouri consumers.

Under one of the so-called tort-reform bills considered by the Missouri Legislature, Senate Bill 5, Cook likely wouldn’t have had any legal recourse.

These are the faces of tort reform. They’re real people, like Brian Koon, who over several painful days in a St. Louis court last year described how an overprescription of opioid pain pills by a local doctor had destroyed his family and almost led to a suicide. Attorneys John Simon and Tim Cronin helped Koon hold the doctor and hospital liable for $17.6 million in damages. For four years, Koon was given more than 37,000 pain pills, far above recommended levels.

His time is up, Greitens said.

So is Donna Delgato’s. She almost died when a dentist left an inch-long piece of steel in her sinus cavity. A trial lawyer made sure she received some measure of justice.

And Mike Lebrun, a former St. Louis firefighter who suffered severe smoke inhalation and other injuries when the alarm on his air tank didn’t go off to warn him he would soon be out of oxygen. Yes, he was awarded $6.5 million by a jury. But the company that made the defective tank recalled them after the lawsuit was filed, perhaps saving other firefighters from suffering a similar, or worse, fate.

The truth about nasty trial lawyers?

Sometimes they save lives. That’s no joke.

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