Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Sacrifice upon the Altar of Democracy

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, January 12, 1998 --  

Americans worship at the altar of democracy like no other people on earth. But a new legal campaign against U.S. gun manufacturers may soon prove just how destructive this philosophy can be.

If lawyers from the Castano Group have their way, their coffers will soon be filled with millions of dollars from civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers.1 The idea behind their campaign, as well as many other suits brewing in the U.S., is that gun manufacturers can be held financially responsible for deaths caused by the misuse of their products. In one case, relatives of murder victims in New York city are seeking to hold the gun industry responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.2

This, of course, is outrageous. To shift the blame from the man who aimed and pulled the trigger to an uninvolved corporation is morally degenerate. The reason behind this shift obviously has to do with the relatively deep pockets of the gun manufacturer, compared with those of the actual perpetrator. But the frightening thing about this devious plan is that it's probably going to work.

Recent experience in the United States has shown that popular outrage against hated industries, like chemical manufacturers and tobacco companies, will lead to financial windfalls for plaintiffs and their lawyers. The most recent campaign against the tobacco industry has yielded a record $206 billion settlement payable to government plaintiffs and their lawyers.3 A previous record settlement, in 1994, led to a $4.25 billion settlement against breast implant manufacturers.4

What each of these cases has in common is a strong populist bias against the defendant. Lawyers know that, whatever the merits of their case, juries will hate the defendant so viscously that chances for victory lean strongly in their favor.

The breast implant case shows just how destructive this kind of situation can be. In 1995, Dow Corning filed for bankruptcy as a result of its incredible losses to breast implant lawsuits. Thousands of people have since lost their jobs at the company, despite the failure of dozens of research teams to prove a link between the disorders mentioned in the lawsuits and the implants. With Dow Corning eliminated, lawyers are now going after the even deeper pockets of its major shareholder, Dow Chemical, which has offered to pay $3.2 billion to settle the remaining cases.5

Another company, Bristol-Myers, lost a $10 million breast implant case earlier this month.6 This is particularly outrageous since it came just weeks after the release of a federally-funded report on breast implant safety, which rules them completely safe, as far as allowed by the confines of science.

The reasons behind court decisions that fly in the face of all scientific evidence and reasoning is the subject of much debate. What is clear, however, is that juries awards typically favor emotion and individuals over hard facts and large corporations. A generally poor understanding of scientific concepts among Americans makes matters even worse. In cases involving science, hopes for sound decisions go completely out the window.

Given the makeup of juries, this should hardly be surprising. By definition, 50 percent of people in the United States have below average IQs. It is these same people who make up half of all juries and electorates in the country. Given this pool of idiots, it shouldn't come as a surprise when they make such boneheaded decisions. This is a major failing of the jury system -- a system that utilizes the smallest of democratic groups.

The purpose of the bill of rights in the U.S. constitution is to prevent populist ideas from running rampant over individual freedoms. Unfortunately, a similar apparatus does not exist to combat populist jury decisions. Americans have very little appreciation for this problem -- they're too busy worshipping at their democratic altar. Without a sense of history, Americans fail to understand the ramifications of their populist philosophy. If put to a popular vote, slavery would not have been outlawed in the South. On a more recent note, if it weren't for an inconvenient constitutional amendment, Bill Clinton would surely be allowed the presidency for life, as long as Americans wallets remain as fat as their waistlines.

This is no way to run a country, and pure democracy is no way to run a government. Sadly, our jury system leans way to far in this direction. As a result, we will soon witness brutally irrational legal judgements against gun manufacturers who are completely innocent in cases of misuse of their products.

The masses, of course, will love the result: another unpopular industry sacrificed upon the altar of democracy.


1. The Washington Post, "After Tobacco Success, Lawyers Pick Gun Fight," January 5, 1999
2. The New York Times, "Liability Suit Targets Gun Industry for Negligent Distribution", January 6, 1999
3. The Washington Post, More States, White House Endorse Tobacco Deal , November 17, 1998
4. Angell, Marcia, Science on Trial, 1997
5. The Washington Post, "Damages Cut In Implant Case," January 2, 1999
6. The Washington Post, " $10 Million Awarded In Breast Implant Suit," January 5, 1999