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EDITORIAL'S ANTI-LAWYER BIAS HURTS THE STATE

Dec 29, 2000

Mobile Register

The pro-business and anti-lawyer bias in the Register's editorial concerning the Exxon verdict is both obvious and harmful to the state ("The penalty on Exxon is far too absurd to stand," Dec. 21).

Without having attended the trial, the editors opine that Exxon should only have to pay the amount of the improper charge plus reasonable attorney fees and a penalty similar to that which the IRS adds for late payments.

That approach to damages eliminates the element of deterrence, which is one of the most valuable features of punitive damages. If we assure corporations that if they get caught stealing from the state the penalty will be slight, Alabama will become a target opportunity. Suppose bank robbers knew that if they got caught, they would only have to give the money back and pay a small penalty? Would you expect the number of bank robberies to increase? Stealing is wrong, whether you do it with a pencil or a pistol, and those who get caught should be punished.

Deterrence is not an abstract issue. Exhibit 49 to the Exxon trial is a letter from Exxon's legal department, which addresses the consequences of underpayment. In that section the author states that "Our exposure is 12 percent interest on underpayments calculated from the due date, and the costs of litigation."

If the author had concluded that the consequences of underpayment would be multiples of the amount underpaid, perhaps the litigation would have been unnecessary. Alabama is one of the poorest states in the nation, and if Exxon, while making billions of dollars a year, was stealing millions a year from Alabama, it should be punished. I did not attend the trial and have no opinion as to whether the verdict was too high. I do know that if we minimize the penalty for fraud, the rate of fraud will increase.

The anti-lawyer portion of the editorial is even more distressing than the pro-business bias. The lawyers representing the people of Alabama. Cunningham Bounds should be congratulated for doing a superb job. Instead, the paper excoriates them for doing their job well. What did they do wrong? Their contract calls for payment on a contingent basis. That is similar to a real estate contract. If a realtor sells my house for more than I expected, I would be pleased, not carp about the increased commission the realtor will receive.

The editorial ends with the statement, "If the lawyers accept any more than a few million dollars for their efforts, without donating the rest to a charitable endeavor, then they are not just attorneys but rapacious profiteers."

By contrast, on the same editorial page in discussing Alex Rodriguez's 10-year $252 million contract to play baseball, the same editorial board stated "On one level, this is just how the free enterprise system works. If Mr. Rodriguez can attract that kind of money, more power to him." Apparently the paper favors free enterprise for baseball players, but not for lawyers suing a business on behalf of the citizens of Alabama.

Finally, in my opinion, Gov. Don Siegelman should be proud of himself for standing up for the people of Alabama. When the state is cheated, our leaders owe it to the citizens to fight for us. That means having the courage to go to court, even if the defendant is one of the largest corporations in the world. Gov. Siegelman, like Cunningham Bounds, did his job well.

Peter Burns

Mobile

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