Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Just an Ambulance Chaser?

This article was posted on Salon.com a while back and I thought it was just unbelievable. I am posting an excerpt of it here but you can also read the full article here if you are a Salon member (otherwise you have to watch a short ad to get a day pass.)

On a summer evening in 1993, David Lakey took his little girl swimming at a recreation center in Raleigh, N.C. Valerie Lakey was 5 years old, a good swimmer, and she and her friends liked to splash around in the children's wading pool that stayed open a little later than the big pool where they usually swam.

That's what Valerie was doing when a nearby mom heard her call out for help. Valerie was sitting on the bottom of the shallow pool, and the suction from the drain was holding her down. David Lakey raced to free his daughter but couldn't. Other parents jumped in the water to help, but they couldn't get Valerie loose. Valerie was scared, and she began to say that her stomach hurt.

Time passed, and somebody figured out how to turn off the pool's pump. The suction broke, and Valerie was released from its grip. But as David Lakey pulled his daughter from the water, blood and tissue filled the pool. Valerie's intestines had been sucked out.

David Lakey slumped to the ground on the side of the pool. He held his daughter on his chest, praying as they waited for an ambulance. Over and over, he told Valerie, "Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you. Daddy loves you."

This account of what happened to Valerie Lakey comes from "Four Trials," the book John Edwards wrote last year as he prepared to run for the presidency. Edwards represented Valerie in a lawsuit against the company that made the drain cover in that swimming pool. A jury awarded her $25 million, compensation for a life of intravenous feedings and colostomy bags.

Tucker Carlson has heard about Valerie's case. It's the one, apparently, that causes him to dismiss John Edwards as a "personal-injury lawyer specializing in Jacuzzi cases."

For six years now, Republicans have tried to minimize and demonize John Edwards as the worst kind of societal parasite: a personal-injury lawyer. North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth ran anti-lawyer TV spots when Edwards ran against him in 1998. When Edwards began pondering a presidential campaign, then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was quoted as saying, "Bring on the ambulance chaser."

But there's a problem for the Republicans: Lawyers like John Edwards, and clients like Valerie Lakey. The GOP and its allies in business and the media can articulate broad economic policy reasons for tort reform, for cracking down on lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits, for reining in the forum shopping and other abuses that sometimes accompany big class-action lawsuits. But it's tough to pin any of those problems on Edwards -- no one has charged that he filed frivolous lawsuits -- and it's hard to trump stories like Valerie Lakey's with statistics about what Republicans call the "tort tax."

Edwards practiced law in North Carolina for nearly two decades. He spent the first two years of his legal career as a junior associate in a law firm that represented corporate defendants, then moved on to the plaintiff's work for which he became famous. He represented children who developed cerebral palsy in lawsuits against their mothers' doctors and hospitals; a woman who underwent a double mastectomy based on a false diagnosis of cancer; he represented a child whose parents were killed when their car was smashed by a big rig; he represented Valerie Lakey.

"The Republicans want to put Edwards out there as a 'trial lawyer,' but I don't think it cuts deeply as an issue because he's not your stereotypical, caricaturable ambulance chaser," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life." The kind of clients that Edwards represented are everyday folks, folks like you and me, people who feel aggrieved by powerful forces out there, whether it's an HMO or a hospital or something else."

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