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Mobile Register
December 26, 1996

Civil injustice: the dilemma of race

Third of three editorials

Alabama continues to attract national attention as a petri dish of corruption in tort law. The Dec. 1 Washington Post ran a front-page story about us. The Wall Street Journal has made several investigative forays into our backwater counties. Forbes magazine will soon publish a story about our judges. And "Dateline NBC" is reportedly researching a story about Alabama, as is CBS "60 Minutes."

This is not fame. It is notoriety. Much of it centers on civil punitive awards that are disproportionately high, disproportionately numerous and concentrated in a few counties. Plaintiffs' lawyers like the counties for their poor and poorly educated jurors, who are open to populist rhetoric against corporations.

An aspect of this problem that has received little public discussion concerns race. Some black jurors view civil lawsuits as an opportunity to right the accumulated wrongs of racism. Last summer Jan Crawford Greenburg, a Chicago Tribune reporter, went to Lowndes County to investigate this dimension of Alabama's corrupted civil law. Her story throws light on racial divisions that deserve serious reflection.

She wrote about Willie Mae Davis of Hayneville, who in 1991 sued a white-owned finance company for fraud. A company agent (who, ironically, was a young black woman) persuaded Ms. Davis to sign blank papers to borrow $2,000 — or so she thought. Later, Ms. Davis received papers saying she owed $18,000. When she fell behind on payments, the company threatened to seize her home. That's when she sued.

After five hours' deliberation, a jury of her peers awarded her $150,000 in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages. She ultimately collected $3 million. Her white lawyer, Jere Beasley, got the other half.

Lowndes County, whose population is 75 percent black, has seen similar cases. A young black man was paralyzed when his Chevy Blazer overturned. He sued General Motors, and a local jury awarded him $150 million. (GM recently settled for an undisclosed amount.) A woman who sued a finance company for allegedly forging her signature on a loan was awarded $34.5 million.

The value of Jan Greenburg's story lies not in reporting such numbers from the public record, but in getting at the underlying anger and frustration of those blacks who — as plaintiffs, jurors and spectators — see civil lawsuits as a chance to get even.

Their anger is understandable. School desegregation meant nothing in Lowndes County. Whites simply built a private school that blacks can't attend. Blacks are not welcome in white churches. They have little social contact with whites. It is a county stuck in time, rigidly Balkanized by racial boundaries.

Lowndes County (among others) is a tragic portrait of white racisim coming home to roost. But "getting even" in the courts is a sadly misguided tactic for aggrieved blacks. A few win big verdicts, but all indirectly pay the drastic increases in the cost of business insurance. Businesses are thereby warned to stay out of Lowndes County — which stanches any influx of job opportunities in a county with 39 percent of its residents below the poverty line.

It is a vicious cycle: Blacks get an illusion of racial justice, but their "victories" corrupt the civil law. The only winners are the trial lawyers, who make their kill and leave.

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