Thank God for trial lawyers

For many years, Corporate America has been waging a campaign to vilify the lawyers who bring suits against them. After decades of knowingly exposing workers and consumers to potentially fatal asbestos, the companies that had profited tried to kill asbestos litigation when lawsuits began to bankrupt them. When tort suits helped workers get real compensation for disabling injuries from unsafe machinery, the corporations moved to bar the suits. When class-action lawsuits proved to be an effective way to bring claims against giant corporate wrongdoers, Congress passed new laws to make such suits more difficult. And when doctors and hospitals began to pay heavily for medical malpractice, they started campaigns in every state and in Congress to limit the damages that could be awarded against them.

All of the harm that corporations and other actors have done to the public—the subjects of so much litigation—could have been better controlled by regulation with real teeth and effective enforcement. Asbestos could have been banned decades ago, as it was in most of Europe. Machines could have been required to have better lock-out mechanisms and better guarding as they were manufactured, to ensure that employees would never be maimed or killed. Drug tests could have been required to be conducted with more independence and transparency, with conflicts of interest prevented. And hospitals could be regulated to prevent unnecessary infections, misadministration of medicines, and surgery on the wrong patient or wrong limb.

But our political culture resists regulation, and even when we have regulation, the government does not always enforce it energetically. Thus, we do have a law and regulations that forbid for-profit employers from employing workers without paying them the minimum wage. And those regulations forbid the employment of students or anyone else as interns (except in very limited circumstances) without paying the minimum wage. The Department of Labor, however, does almost nothing to enforce the law in this area. Moreover, the token penalties in this and most areas of labor law lead companies to treat them as a cost of doing business.

So I was delighted to see the trial bar take this issue on, with a highly respected New York law firm suing Fox Searchlight and Hearst Corporation for failing to pay various employees the corporations called “interns,” including college graduates and even a CPA.

The effect of these suits has been salutary! Already, the media report that other employers have taken notice and law firms are now advising clients not to break the law. One USA Today headline read, “Fewer Unpaid Internships to Be Offered.”

I hope the headline is accurate, and if it is, it will be due to the efforts of Outen and Golden, LLP. The New York law firm is doing the work our government ought to be doing.

Thank God for trial lawyers.