The press has been making a lot of noise about a bill that recently passed the House. The bill would make explicit the long-understood principle that manufacturers are not legally liable for the criminal misuse of their legal products. The only thing about this bill that should surprise anyone is that Congress felt the need to make the principle explicit. After all, we all recognize that you can't sue a brewery because someone got drunk, tried to drive home, and killed someone in an accident. When criminal misuse begins, legal liability ends -- in fact, legal liability often ends well before the point of criminal misuse.
So why does Congress feel the need to restate this principle? Well, it seems that a certain group of people think that a political hot-button issue is enough to override the usual principles of law. They think that a pitiful enough victim will melt the heart of a judge enough to allow their claims to pass. And if it doesn't, well, there's always another victim, another judge, another jurisdiction.
Because there are lots of victims, but there is only a very small group behind the lawsuits. Yes, that's lawsuits -- plural. It's not a single abusive lawsuit, it is a systematic pattern of abuse. Not incidentally, exactly the sort of problem that a change in the law is meant to correct.
When I say a "certain group of people", I'm not referring to some nebulous grouping on the level of "people who like black cats". No, I'm referring to organizations. Perhaps 5-10 different organizations, counting a number of city governments and an approximately equal number of political organizations.
Oh, didn't I mention that? These suits are all brought by non-profit political lobbying groups, often in collaboration with city governments or puppet victims as the official plaintiffs. But these political organizations are paying the legal costs for the suits. Makes you go "hmm", doesn't it?
The truth is, these political organizations are trying to use the courts to force their targeted organizations to do business differently -- or not at all. They want court settlements or a judge's court-ordered sentence, but if they can't get either, they'll settle for suing their targets over and over and over again until they go bankrupt. After all, it's a lot easier and cheaper to file a lawsuit than it is to defend against one.
And who knows? If they keep trying, maybe they'll eventually get a judge willing to be swayed by his personal biases long enough to get a verdict in their favor. But that's not really a necessary part of their strategy; driving their targets out of business would do just fine.
And we're not talking about a safety issue here. These aren't SUVs with faulty tires and a tendency to roll over and play dead. We're talking about ordinary household items being used to commit crimes and then blaming the manufacturer of the product -- sort of like driving drunk, killing someone, and then suing the bar that sold you the beer along with the company that brewed and bottled it.
By this time you're probably not surprised that these groups have chosen this particular tactic because they can't get their programs through the legislature. They've been trying for about 70 years, and until recently they've had some amount of success. The past few years have seen their efforts dry up, though, and even in many places get rolled back. They're nervous. They're afraid. They're realizing that the American people really, fundamentally disagree with the principles they have chosen to dedicate their lives to supporting. And so they grasp at straws, and their allies in the media help them out by spinning the issue the way that these special-interest groups want it spun.
So what's the issue here?
If this surprises you, or if you're familiar with the issue but
haven't heard it described this way before, maybe it's time you asked