Q&A with North Country attorney Paul Chant
Ask Paul Chant, the president-elect of the New Hampshire Association for Justice (formerly the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association), about the recent documentary film, "Hot Coffee," and he'll tell you it's a story about why calls for so-called tort reform are bogus.
It's "mostly noise," he says, created by politicians seeking an easy sound bite and campaign donations and corporations looking to reduce their costs while ordinary Americans pay a heavy price in losing access to justice.
"It is ironic that as other nations work to establish new governments and courts of justice that ours, which are held out as the best throughout the world, are under such attack here by corporations that have thrived and prospered in large part because we are a nation of laws with a sound system of justice," said Chant, a Vermont native who has practiced law in New Hampshire since 1986.
Chant, a personal injury lawyer, is a partner in the law firm of Cooper Cargill Chant, which has 10 lawyers and offices in North Conway and Berlin.
Q. What are the most important functions of the New Hampshire Association for Justice?
A. I think there are two critical functions. NHAJ has the premier "trial lawyers academy" for lawyers to learn practical trial skills. It also offers superb seminars for lawyers to learn about changes in law and courtroom practices. NHAJ also has a legislative voice for victims of accidents, work injuries and malpractice. The insurance industry and corporate America is working hard to limit rights of victims. NHAJ has an important public policy voice and helps stop many proposed bad laws from becoming law.
Q. What do you hear when New Hampshire lawmakers or congressmen talk about tort reform?
A. George Bush and Karl Rove worked very hard to make the words "trial lawyer" sound evil. Yet Bush's election victory, right or wrong, was preserved by those very trial lawyers and our court system.
Trial by jury is and should be cherished by citizens of this country. I urge anyone to speak to citizens who have served on juries. They come away impressed with our system, our judges, the quality of the lawyers, and the quality of the deliberations of the jury itself. Tort reform desires, at its very core, that the power be taken away from our peers, the jury.
The simple fact is that corporate America wants to reduce their costs. It is not because there is any kind of crisis. Tort costs are minuscule compared, for example, to health insurance costs. However, if you ask real, critical questions regarding the prevalence and number of "out-of-control" verdicts, you will find the answers don't compute.
Someone will say, "Well, what about the McDonald's coffee burn case?" Everyone knows that mid-1990s case because it was so unusual. The facts in that case justified the verdict. See the movie "Hot Coffee." The insurance industry has saved many billions of dollars because of that case. Can you name another out-of-control civil jury verdict? Many people can't.
In New Hampshire, our tort system works. There are no punitive damages. Damages are for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and enjoyment of life. They are fair and proper. Most folks think our juries and recoveries to clients are lower now than 15 or 20 years ago. Certainly, medical costs have gone up, but total recoveries vs. medical costs have gone down. I challenge anyone to cite to me the facts of an unreasonably high jury award for a plaintiff in New Hampshire.
Medical malpractice cases do occasionally see very high awards, but those cases universally involve significant, live-changing damages. The awards are not unreasonable.
Q. What are your main objections to Senate Bill 406, the so-called 'early offer' medical malpractice bill?
A. First, folks are asked to "opt in" to this system with no surety with regard to what recovery they will actually obtain at the end of the process. In a fraught emotional state following malpractice, they are asked to make a blind bet. That is not fair.
Second, if they do not agree with the award, and then want to go forward with their tort case, they must prove "gross negligence" rather than the current "failure to use reasonable care." Short of a doctor cutting off the wrong leg, that is an impossible standard. Why can't you have a system with early offers without punishing those who choose not to accept the offer? It is a horrible, dangerous path to go down.
Q. What did you find most interesting about "Hot Coffee"?
A. First, the power of organized funded propaganda. Second, how media can create its own story, irrespective of the facts. And third, we should all fear elected, funded judges.
I had heard stories of the expensive political campaign for judgeships in other states, but did not realize just how dangerous it has already become until I saw the movie. We don't have elected judges here in New Hampshire. The movie reiterated for me how important it is that judges have true independence.
Q. What was Shakespeare's intent when he had a character say in Henry VI, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"?
Go back and read the actual passage. Shakespeare actually was celebrating lawyers!
Q. Why did you become a lawyer and what's the best part about being lawyer?
I like advocacy and grew up really respecting our court system and our commitment to a nation of laws.
The best part of being a lawyer is easy. I have made the lives of many of my clients easier and better. As an injury lawyer, I deal with individuals and families in crisis. Pain, an inability to work, and ongoing bills make for a hard time for most people. We help people through those times.