Seven years ago, Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse began a campaign to limit when corporations may be punished for harming Alabama residents. AVALA's leadership has always maintained that it is free and independent from national business and conservative interests with these same goals.
Yet AVALA's so-called independence turns out to be a hoax. Since its inception, AVALA's development has been funded by cigarette companies and other groups who believe they should not be accountable to consumers. AVALA has been advised on how to change the tort laws in Alabama by groups and lawyers hired by these outside interests. AVALA has been the willing tool of these groups' efforts to interfere in the affairs of our sovereign state.
Longtime readers of these pages, or followers of recent Alabama politics, might expect such accusations from me, a trial lawyer. But these are not my accusations. They are facts culled from thousands of memos and papers obtained in state and private investigations of the tobacco industry. Researchers from Public Citizen and the Center for Justice and Democracy have found proof of AVALA's complicity in a nationwide effort to subvert the legislative and judicial process of dozens of states.
Skip Tucker, executive director of AVALA, told a newspaper in 1996 that AVALA had "never taken a dime" of tobacco money. The documents reveal, however, that in 1995 the group received at least $22,000 from Lorillard, one of a coalition of tobacco companies secretly funding a "Tort Reform Project." This project, the documents reveal, funneled millions of dollars to organizations in several Southern states, all of which had names similar to AVALA's.
These once-hidden documents reveal that these efforts were carefully coordinated through a lobbying organization known as APCO & Associates. This company, hired by business interests who feel that the nations’s civil justice system works to their detriment, has directed these state organizations on how to weaken tort laws and elect judges who favor their philosophy, all while acting under the guise of being spontaneous, “grass roots” organizations of ordinary citizens.
When Tucker and other AVALA officials deny, for example, any outside influence on the organization, Alabama citizens should know how these documents contradict them. And as Alabama citizens face the momentous choice of who should sit on the state Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals during this forthcoming general election in November, they should remember how these outside business interests sought to buy influence in Alabama’s judicial races of 1996 and 1998.
Tucker and AVALA will not give you these facts, but you can read them yourself. The Center for Justice and Democracy has a summary of the report at its Web site, www.centerjd.org and you can order the complete report from there.
Let’s face it: If AVALA and its allies had their way, all consumer lawsuits would be thrown out of court - or barred in the first place. Should that happen, Alabama consumers would lose their only protection. Should this happen, documents like these and millions of others would remain hidden.
And should this happen, Alabama consumers would never know the deals done in secret to deprive them of justice.
DAVID G. WIRTES J.R.