Jim Hightower: When the bullies cry

By Jim Hightower

Where are those lawsuit abuse groups when you need them?  And: A happy ending for Rock Art Brewery.
by Jim Hightower

Chances are you’ve seen ads, letters to the editor, op-ed pieces and other materials from outfits with such civic-sounding names on Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. By whatever name, the message is always the same, usually delivered in a sort of urgent, basso profundo voice saying something like this: “Bloodsucking lawyers are constantly filing frivolous lawsuits against beleaguered corporations. Stop these lawyers and their loser clients—demand that your lawmakers cut them off from the courthouse.”

Hmmmm. Stop consumers from bullying big business—now there’s an improbable populist cause if I ever heard one! Who are these “citizens” who’ve formed such noisy lawsuit abuse groups?

Well, they’re just neighbors, we’re told. Yeah, assuming you have a neighbor named Philip Morris. In the mid-’90s, this tobacco giant was still fighting off class-action lawsuits from hundreds of thousands of Americans who’d been addicted to, sickened and killed by the corporation’s murderous products. Unable to win in court, Philip Morris and its corporate allies secretly launched a nationwide campaign to rig the rules of judicial access in their favor. Philip Morris itself put up $16 million in 1995 to hire a PR firm to create faux “grassroots” fronts in every state under the banner of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA).

These front groups (which continue to demonize consumer lawyers and fight for new laws to take away our fundamental right to seek legal redress against corporations that injure us) are funded and controlled through another corpor­ate front named American Tort Reform Association . Its backers include a who’s who of big business brand names, from Anheuser-Busch to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

The lawsuit abuse groups are not really against abusive lawsuits. It’s only legal actions against big corporations that get their knickers in a knot. On the other hand, when those same corporations turn their powerhouse legal departments against the hoi polloi (consumers, small businesses, environmental groups, etc.), we never hear a peep of complaint from CALA about abuse. Curiously inconsistent, huh?

For example, where is their outrage about Hansen Beverage Inc., the nationwide, billion-dollar marketer of Hansen’s Natural soda and Monster energy drinks? This Goliath has unleashed its legal hounds to chase clear across the continent to take a big bite out of a tiny David in Morrisville, Vt. There, Matt and Renee Nadeau have created a local business producing artisan beers. Their Rock Art Brewery employs seven people, and they make a terrific brew with the bodacious name of The Vermonster.

When this label hit the sensitive radar of Hansen Beverage, the corporate lawyers fired off a nuclear email to the Nadeaus, demanding that they cease and desist from using the Vermonster name—or be sued. Sued for what? For infringing on Hansen’s “Monster” trademark, barked the cross-country lawyers, adding that Rock Art’s use of “Vermonster” would “undoubtedly create a likelihood of (consumer) confusion” between the two brands.

Uh, we make a beer, not an energy drink, replied the Nadeaus—and our beer comes in a 22-ounce brown bottle that looks nothing like a Hansen product.

Common sense, however, is not spoken by corporate lawyers, and the Hansen gang promptly shifted from frivolous to abusive, demanding the surrender of the label, plus compensation to cover Hansen’s high-priced legal fees.

Corporate executives and lawyers know they can drag out cases like this for years. The timeline takes no skin off the nose of billion-dollar outfits with their own legal staffs, but a protracted fight can quickly bankrupt a small business. Thus, even when the corporate power is in the wrong, it can usually bully the innocent into submission.

Maybe not this time, though. “Corporate America can’t be allowed to do this,” declared a defiant Matt Nadeau. So the feisty couple mounted an online campaign to rally us consumers and others to push back against the abuse of the Hansen “monster.” They won’t get the support of the CALA frauds, but maybe they’ll get yours. Check out their revolt at www.rockartbrewery.com. u

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer and public speaker. He has spent three decades battling the Power That Be on behalf of the Power That Ought to Be. His column ran in CATALYST for many years. After a long hiatus, we are glad to have him back. © 2009 Creators.com



This article was originally published on November 1, 2009.