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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Fallout From ExxonMobil Ruling?

The Alabama Supreme Court actually made an intelligent, well-reasoned ruling the other day. But one might wonder if this positive development was an effort by the court's Republican majority to make nice after a wretched and extremely costly ruling the court issued a few weeks ago.

In the earlier case, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned almost all of a $3.6 billion jury verdict in favor of the state against oil giant ExxonMobil. So what did that have to do with a ruling announced this week in a case involving exposure to toxic chemicals at work?

First, a few details about the latest case. In a 5-4 decision, the court overturned a 29-year precedent that said people have two years after their last exposure to a toxic chemical to seek money damages for resulting medical problems. In Griffin v. Unocal, the court held that now people will have two years to file suit after the medical problem becomes apparent, such as after a doctor's diagnosis.

Just one year ago, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Jack Cline over leukemia he developed after exposure to benzene at work in Bessemer. The court found the dismissal was proper because Cline had filed his suit six years after his first exposure but less than two years after he was diagnosed with cancer. Cline died nine days after the ruling.

The Griffin ruling applies only to new cases and will not be applied retroactively, so it comes too late for Cline's family.

But the question persists: What caused the court to change its mind?

For one, Sue Bell Cobb defeated Chief Justice Drayton Nabers to become the court's only Democrat. It's not a surprise that Cobb would side with the plaintiff in a toxic-exposure case. But the court's other new member, Republican Glenn Murdock, also sided with the plaintiff. In fact, it was Murdock's vote that truly tipped the scales of justice.

If my memory is correct, Murdock has consistently portrayed himself as a pro-business conservative. In fact, the Montgomery Advertiser has reported that Republican "consultant" Dax Swatek has raised money for Murdock. Swatek is a long-time associate of Bill Canary, head of the Business Council of Alabama and famed for his "my girls are going to take care of Don Siegelman" quote as reported by whistleblower Jill Simpson. And Swatek's father, William E. Swatek of Pelham, is the slimeball attorney who fired a bogus lawsuit against yours truly and led to this blog.

With that kind of background, and those kind of connections, it's hard to imagine that Murdock really wanted to side with the victim of exposure to toxic chemicals. So why would he side with a plaintiff against a large corporation?

Could his vote have come partly as an effort to soothe public feelings over the $3.6 billion screw job the court's Republicans administered in the ExxonMobil case?

Keep in mind that Dax Swatek also was campaign manager in 2006 for Alabama Governor Bob Riley. And we know that Riley is leading a major fundraising effort to help Republicans take over the Alabama Legislature by 2010. That effort took a blow earlier this week when black Democrat James Fields won a special election over white Republican Wayne Willingham to fill a house seat representing overwhelmingly white Cullman County.

But I'm guessing that part of Riley's plan for a total Republican takeover of Alabama includes an effort to make the corrupt GOPers on our high court look warm and fuzzy. And what better way to do it than by having them appear to support victims of exposure to toxic chemicals? And what better way to get the public to forget the $3.6 million shaft job those same Republicans pulled off in the ExxonMobil case?

Let's hope Alabamians have a much better memory than Riley & Co. give them credit for.

You've got to love Republican judges. Even when they actually make a just ruling, you still get the sense that they are using the courts for political purposes.

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