Up in Smoke

Last Friday, a Miami jury awarded a group of Florida smokers an all-time record $145 billion in punitive damages. While this outrageous award will almost certainly be reduced on appeal, the case nevertheless demonstrates just how far American law has strayed from its moral roots. This verdict was the culmination of a two-year process. Last summer, the jury said that the tobacco companies produced a dangerous product and lied to the public about it. They awarded $13 million to a handful of plaintiffs as compensation for their injuries. This led to the punitive damage phase, in which the jury decides how best to punish the defendants. It took them only four hours to decide on $145 billion "to send," as the foreman put it, "a message" to the tobacco companies. Well, I'm not defending the tobacco companies. I'd like to see everybody quit smoking. But the real message here is the demise of the idea of personal responsibility for one's own behavior. As recently as 20 years ago, it was understood in American law that if a person contributed to his own injuries, he was barred from recovering damages. This doctrine, known as "contributory negligence," is why the tobacco industry always won its cases. It wasn't that juries liked the tobacco companies; but they understood something the Miami jury chose to ignore: Since 1969, every American who lights up does so in the full knowledge that they're putting their health at risk. Not only is it common knowledge, the warnings are on the wrappers. Awards like this one are possible only because trial lawyers have been able to persuade juries that people are not responsible for their own choices. Remember: there are more ex-smokers than smokers in this country. People can quit. I know. But the idea of holding people accountable for their behavior is apparently a thing of the past. And this attitude indicates even broader changes in our legal philosophy. Common law, which we inherited from England, was a kind of moral reasoning. Judges and juries applied principles to specific situations, often based on biblical ideas of fairness and justice. But law today has been detached from any transcendent standard of authority. The question is no longer "What's the right thing to do?" It is, "What can we get a judge and jury to go along with?" Law in such cases is not used as an equitable way to settle disputes but as a means of gaining power or financial rewards -- often getting the courts to do what the people's representatives in the legislature would not do. And trial lawyers, one of the most potent lobbies in America, who contribute millions to liberal causes every year, are the big winners in all of this -- far more than the victims they represent. In the end, manipulation of the legal system undermines confidence in the rule of law, and chips away at the cornerstone of democracy. Do Christians have a stake in all this? Absolutely. Christian principles formed the very foundation of our legal system. And the idea that individuals are responsible for their own behavior is profoundly biblical. Regardless of what we may think of the tobacco companies, the verdict in Miami is part of a trend that threatens all of us. For if ours laws are separated from their moral foundations, a lot more than Philip Morris profits will be going up in smoke.


Chuck Colson


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