Michael Townes Watson
Reagan’s Second Pop Tort: The Phone Booth Man
Cyrus Dugger’s article posted on March 19 about Ronald Reagan’s Pop Tort, demonstrated how Reagan influenced the public perception of lawyers and lawsuits by using anecdotes that were only partially true. Reagan first told the story about the CAT Scan Psychic in April of 1987 at a speech delivered to the College of Physicians and Surgeons. There was an even earlier public pronouncement that included an unfair and distorted view of the legal system. President Reagan’s Public Papers show that in May of 1986, at a speech before the American Tort Reform Association, he told one of his favorite anecdotes:
“In California, a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of her car, and crashed into the phone booth. Now it’s no surprise that the injured man sued. But you might be startled to hear whom he sued: the telephone company and associated firms.”
This is one of the earliest examples of politicians using hyperbole and misinformation to take a very sad and true case and twist it to make it support an argument against the victim. The way it was posed by Reagan, it was another tale of a civil justice system gone amuck from money-grubbing trial lawyer sharks looking to line their pockets at the expense of our flag-waving corporations. The truth could not be more the opposite–the victim was Charles Bigbee, who lost his leg in the accident. He was a custodian who worked for the city of Los Angeles. The night of his injury, he was making a call in the phone booth located on a liquor store parking lot, twelve feet from a busy boulevard. He saw a speeding car, apparently coming toward the phone booth and the liquor store. He tried to flee, but could not, because the door of the booth jammed, pinning him inside like a sitting duck.
His lawyer, doing his job, learned in his investigation that twenty months prior to Bigbee’s accident, the phone booth, at the identical location, had been hit by another car on the very same destructive path. The phone company erected another booth in the exact same spot, with no guardrail or other barrier, no warning to users, and with a door that did not work properly, with no regard to what had happened prior, and without considering alternatives. Bigbee could no longer walk and could not work. The driver’s insurance did not even cover Bigbee’s medical expenses. The trial judge dismissed the case, but the California Supreme Court said that Bigbee’s case should be heard by a jury. Eleven years after the beginning of his personal version of hell, Bigbee got his case settled for an undisclosed amount. In July of 1986, after having heard of Reagan’s jab at the system that saved him some personal dignity, Bigbee came to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing on tort law. He tried to meet with Reagan and discuss the case. Reagan refused, and continued to tell the same misleading story for the rest of Bigbee’s life, which ended in 1994 when he was 52 years old.
Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith co-authored a book entitled No Contest, in which they detail these stories, and numerous other ways that the corporate community influenced politicians to carry their tort reform water.
It was only two years later that George Herbert Walker Bush’s stood before the Republican National Conventioneers to accept their nomination, proclaiming that the lawyers in their “penny loafers” were costing the economy some $300 billion dollars per year in wasted productivity. Reagan started the ball rolling, Bush grabbed the ball, and it has been cleanly passed to his son, who is still claiming that “junk lawsuits” are a burden to our healthcare system.
On pages 79-82 of my book, America’s Tunnel Vision—How Insurance Companies’ Propaganda Is Corrupting Medicine and Law I have shown multiple instances where different groups have widely circulated completely false stories of ridiculous lawsuits. These stories are often repeated as true, even though there is no verifiably accurate source for the story.
Our mission, as advocates for the injured and less fortunate, is to try to give the public the true facts and point out the inaccuracies and propaganda of those who seek to strip the rights from the injured victims.