During a recent hearing before Congress, the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority acknowledged a ‘larger cultural problem’ at the agency as an inspector general’s report says it allowed its lawyers to stifle a $3 million study into the cause of a massive coal ash spill to limit its legal liability. The report also said the nation’s largest public utility failed for more than 20 years to heed warnings that might have prevented the spill." The breach "of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic-laden coal ash from the earthen dams and holding ponds at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant into the Emory River and lakeside homes has raised questions about the risks and lack of regulation of hundreds of similar sites around the country."
Some citizens might be shocked to hear that our country’s largest public utility would hide safety information from the government and the public. Unfortunately, this practice is all too common. Moreover, companies have been known to spend much more money on lobbyists and judicial elections than it would have taken to make thier products or facility safe. Indeed, in neighboring West Virginia, a coal company allegedly spent millions of dollars to buy a state Supreme Court seat for an elected justice, who would be seated in time to vote on the coal company’s appeal of a large verdict against the coal company. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the coal company’s judge must recuse himself from the case. Otherwise, life would likey have imitated art, and we may have seen the real-life version of John Grisham’s book, The Verdict, unfold in West Virginia.
If this represents business as usual, why in the world would we want to limit citizens’ Seventh Amendment rights to trial by jury? This is what the tort reform groups wish to do. They are running advertisements on the television and at the movie theaters hoping to shift the issue to a false bogeyman, trial lawyers. The real issue is what is the best way to change intentionally unsafe or illegal corporate behavior? I believe the answer is to hold the wrongdoer accountable for the wrongful acts. As the founders of our country recognized, the legal system is the most civilized forum for seeking this accountablility.