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America’s Cruel Judicial System

Why the court system in the United States is an anachronistic cruelty sometimes:

Example 1: A welder cutting an underground gas tank with a torch perishes in a terrible explosion. The entity buying his labor should now pay his widow and children for their loss, right?

Wrong. The Connecticut Supreme Court, and the insurance companies who provided workers compensation insurance say no. This is not a hypothetical. Russell v. R. N. Russell Welding, LLC, 226 Conn. 508 (1993).

Anyone with a compassionate heart says yes, the widow and her children should receive some money. But the lack of employer-employee relationship dooms her efforts at dignity. You tell the fatherless kids tough cookies.

Example 2: A woman files a claim against her employer’s insurance for disability benefits. Her benefits flow from a contract of adhesion, meaning she had no opportunity to negotiate the contract and couldn’t have gotten the job without signing.

It took years, but the insurer and employer finally denied her claim. So she sued. Yet when she got to court, the employer claimed a provision in the contract of adhesion prevented her from going to court because the time had run out on her ability to file in the court.

It’s called a statute of limitations, and up until Monday, December 16, 2013, the United States Supreme Court had never previously determined that “rules governing the length of a limitations period and applied them to the question of accrual, i.e., when the clock starts running.”

That quote is from Matt Wessler, the attorney who argued the Plaintiff’s case in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life Insurance Co. before the SCOTUS. The irony of Hartford being involved in case where rights will disappear is not lost on this scribe.

Heimeshoff sounds much like Lilly Ledbetter’s case. Ledbetter worked at Goodyear Tire in Alabama for two decades. She didn’t know she wasn’t getting paid as much as her male co-workers. When she found out, she sued.

The SCOTUS said, Lily, sorry, the statute of limitations ran out years ago. You needed to sue before you knew the discrimination was happening. Lily needed an act of Congress in 2009 to get the right to sue.

Heimeshoff, though, takes it a step further, in order to get a job, a company can force you to sign a contract that, per Wessler, “running on an employee’s benefits lawsuit before that lawsuit could ever be filed in court.”

It’s a Catch-22, like Ledbetter’s case. But it is par for the course in America’s cruel legacy of jurisprudence against people, favoring property and money over human flesh and blood.

Wessler, the attorney, thinks his loss in Heimeshoff will have “far reaching implications.” Why? Because Heimeshoff’s benefit plan was under ERISA, and more than 190 million Americans have some form of benefit plan governed by ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974).

Wessler on why: “The Court’s decision [December 16] triggered a seismic shift in the blackletter law governing statutes of limitations. Until [December 16], it had been the settled rule—since the 1830s—that, for limitations purposes, a federal statutory cause of action does not accrue until the plaintiff can actually file her claim in court.”

This is the state of American law today. Whether it is Lilly Ledbetter or Julie Heimeshoff or Mrs. Russell, no court is going to give a human the benefit of the doubt. And the doors of the courthouses continue to close for plaintiffs with legitimate grievances.

Mrs. Russell is a tough one to swallow. The Workers’ Compensation legislation celebrated its 100 year anniversary this year, in 2013. Paying workers for on the job injuries provided liberal protections to people moneyed interests fought against.

Farmers who feared financial failure at the hands of such a regime in 1911 defeated the first stab at Workers’ Comp in Connecticut, according Attorney Jim Pomeranz in the September 2013 issue of CT Lawyer. It will be cost prohibitive and overly burdensome, farmers and Republicans argued.

By 1920, the Workers’ Compensation Commission scheme worked and “could be funded profitably,” Pomeranz reported.

Even so, moneyed interests and injured workers have spent every minute since then quarrelling over every facet. Now workers’ comp looks something like a gerrymandered Texas Congressional district.

The law covers only those who have an employer-employee relationship; not if you are an independent contractor. Yet, for some industries, independent contractor is the coin of the realm.

The very word independent courses through the veins of our country. But, like free speech, be dumb enough to exercise it, and society perversely punishes independence.

Wesson hired the independent contractor for the task because it was cheaper than in-house. Russell Welding was low bidder since he didn’t have to carry worker’s compensation coverage.

You say he assumed the risk. He knew what he was doing. Society shouldn’t protect him from the consequences of his bad decision.

Yet our society created this Hobbesian choice for him. Capitalism and its logic of exploitation demanded Mr. Russell act against his own best interest.

But Russell Welding goes bankrupt if he charges higher prices for this dangerous job. He assumes the risk and thinks that nothing bad will ever happen. A single mom, his children and his community pay the cost of his low bid, instead of the institutions that can most bear it.

“Unmet needs debase people,” says Jacobin.com editor Shawn Gude. “Satisfying necessities is a precondition for self-determination and self-governance…It makes life a little less cruel, a little less insecure. And reducing that cruelty is, without question, our entitlement.”

Why don’t we want to help her and the kids? Why does the law unjustly shift collective burdens onto individuals? There is profit in Russell’s spilled blood. He is not alone. You don’t like it? You want change? Go to the state legislature or Congress and close the loophole.

There, capitalists meets you with a rigged system: lobbyists, compliant elected officials, and a byzantize process designed to stall such humane laws.

America had a turning point once, where it appeared we became a less cruel nation, where dignity became law. Following Europeans who started passing such laws in 1884, American legal scholars contemplated Mr. Russell’s issues at the turn of the century.

“The liability . . . is estimated, and sooner or later goes into the price paid by the public. The public really pays the damages, and the question of liability, if pressed far enough, is really the question how far it is desirable that the public should insure the safety of those whose work it uses.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457, 466 (1897).

We lament now, Justice Holmes, how America answered the question. Our laws today seem “hideous relics of a harsh age when business interests enjoyed excessive sway over law and when mean-spirited casuistry of argument prevailed over the real lives and interests of people.”Illinois Central R.R. v. Cox, 21 Ill. 20, 26 (1858).

Our regression palpable, we must endeavor to prevent such injustice.


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