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**** FOR PRINT *** Expert calls AAJ's confidentiality agreement into question

By Justin Anderson | Feb 14, 2011

A legal expert says it's suspicious that the American Association for Justice would impose a confidentiality agreement on members to attend the group's winter convention.

Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow and manager of The Heritage Foundation's Civil Justice Reform Initiative, says the agreement is unusual.

"I am not sure I have ever seen a 'secrecy' agreement at a convention of lawyers," von Spakovsky told Legal Newsline. "I guess they really don't want anyone to know their latest strategies for attacking the business community, health care providers and others whom they view as 'deep pocket' defendants with their latest frivolous lawsuits."

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank. The American Association for Justice is a group that advocates for the plaintiffs' bar. The association has ignored requests for comment made by Legal Newsline.

The association held its winter convention in Miami last week. According to the schedule, discussions focused on litigation targeting a range of areas -- from prescription drugs and medical devices to hot water tanks and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

As part of registering for the convention, members had to sign off on a confidentiality agreement. The agreement bars attendees from discussing publicly information related to the association's legislative and regulatory advocacy. Those who violate the agreement could be ousted from the group, according to the registration materials.

Von Spakovsky said these restrictions can have adverse effects.

"The lack of transparency calls into question the ethics of plaintiffs' lawyers even more than they are already questioned by courts and the public," he said. "That kind of secrecy in coordination and strategic planning can also lead to mass numbers of abusive lawsuits being launched against defendants in a specific industry that are intended to overwhelm them in such a manner that large settlements can be extorted even when there is no factual or legal basis for the suits."

Von Spakovsky said some of the topics for discussion "would be laughable" if the litigation didn't have the potential to harm businesses.

For instance, one session focused on bicycle litigation.

"When you ride a bike, you assume the dangers of an accident in a collision with a car or a pedestrian," von Spakovsky said. "Trying to claim product malfunctions is pretty silly, and another sign of how trial lawyers try to convince anyone who is injured that there must always be someone else responsible for their own actions."

He said that kind of "frivolous litigation" could drive the prices of bicycles up or drive manufactures out of businesses "because too many of our state courts are so badly run they result in undeserved awards or jackpot justice."

Von Spakovsky also pointed to the "Medical Negligence Information Exchange Group" as another troubling area that might do nothing but raise health care costs.

"Medical malpractice premiums have been going through the roof in terms of costs for years because of frivolous malpractice claims, the majority of which are won by doctors after great cost," von Spakovsky said. "Those direct costs and the costs of defensive medicine practiced by doctors to avoid such suits probably account for 10 percent of health care costs across the U.S."

Two politicians - Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa - were also scheduled to make appearances at the convention. Neither official's campaign responded to a request for comment from Legal Newsline.

Von Spakovsky said Sen. Nelson "should be embarrassed to be associated with a group whose chief business is to file abusive litigation that costs the American economy hundreds of millions of dollars and that helps destroy jobs and industries."

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American Association for Justice