The Oklahoma City Bombing, and a Lawsuit

It's only a few days since the OKC bombing, and already a lawsuit has been filed.

Civil lawsuits are used to decide whether someone owes someone else money, according to any contracts in effect between the parties and according to the laws. Typically, if I do something to you that costs you money, you can sue me to get the money. If I do something particularly bad, I can be punished and forced to pay you more than I cost you.

It's clear to anybody that someone cost a lot of people a lot of money in the OKC bombing. Who was at fault? The person or persons who set off the bomb, of course. It doesn't take a mental giant to figure that out. Who got sued? A company that makes fertilizer. Why didn't the bombers get sued? Good question, with a very bad answer. The reason the people at fault didn't get sued is because they don't have millions of dollars in cash and/or insurance like the fertilizer company.

Why a fertilizer company? Ammonium nitrate fertilizer was used as the primary explosive in the bomb.

You might think that the reason the bombers weren't sued is that they haven't been proven guilty. Nope. In a civil suit, you don't have to be proven guilty in order to be forced to pay millions. In fact, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols happened to buy fertilizer from this company. The case against the fertilizer company is based on the assumed guilt of these two people.

So with the civil courts of today, a fertilizer company stands to be punished for something done without its knowledge or consent. This company has done nothing different from hundreds of other fertilizer companies across the country, yet it stands to lose millions of dollars because it appears that two people used its product to make a bomb.

It is appalling to see a few lawyers trying to profit from a tradegy such as the OKC bombing. A typical fee for such a lawsuit is one third to one quarter of the award or settlement -- millions of dollars in this case. It is even more appalling to see the lawyers twist the US court system around in such as way as to extort money from any company remotely related to the bombing, regardless of guilt. The only thing the fertilizer company is guilty of is having enough money to be an attractive target for the lawyers.

The fertilizer company broke no laws or regulations. It did not participate in the bombing. It did not produce any defective products. In fact, the ammonium nitrate fertilizer is commonly sold as an explosive. It worked as advertised. But the lawyers and the courts will force this company to pay.

The worst thing about this case is that it's not an isolated incident of injustice in civil courts. This type of lawsuit occurs daily, if on a smaller or less visible scale. Companies in the United States do not have to do anything wrong to get sued and lose. They just have to have enough money or insurance to be sued, and they have to be related to the occurance of an accident, even if the relationship is innocent and remote.

Congress talked about passing a tough legal reform bill this year. It looks like nothing significant will be done about it now, however. Congress once again buckled under the pressure from a special interest group. In this case, it was the trial lawyers. It reminds me of words from "New Revolution", a rock song heard in the 60's and 70's:

"Meet the new boss... same as the old boss."