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Thursday, Oct. 29, 2009 01:52 pm

A corporate Monster v. “The Vermonster”

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Where are those lawsuit abuse groups when you really need them?

Chance are that you’ve seen ads, letters-to-the-editor, op-ed pieces and other materials put out by outfits with such civic-sounding names as Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. By whatever name, the message is always the same, usually delivered in a sort of urgent, basso profundo voice saying something like this: “Bloodsucking lawyers are constantly filing frivolous lawsuits against beleaguered corporations. Stop these lawyers and their loser clients — demand that your lawmakers cut them off from the courthouse.”

Hmmmm. Stop consumers from bullying big business — now there’s an improbable populist cause if I ever heard one! Who are these “citizens” who’ve formed such noisy lawsuit abuse groups?

Well, they’re just neighbors, we’re told by the groups. Yeah, assuming you have a neighbor named Philip Morris. In the mid-’90s, this tobacco giant was still fighting off class-action lawsuits from hundreds of thousands of Americans who’d been addicted to, sickened and killed by the corporation’s murderous products. Unable to win in court, Philip Morris and its corporate allies secretly launched a nationwide campaign to rig the rules of judicial access in their favor. Philip Morris itself put up $16 million in 1995 to hire a PR firm to create faux “grassroots” fronts in every state under the banner of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

These CALA front groups (which continue to demonize consumer lawyers and fight for new laws to take away our fundamental right to seek legal redress against corporations that injure us) are funded and controlled through another corporate front named ATRA — American Tort Reform Association. Its backers include a who’s who of big business brand names, from Anheuser-Busch to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

The lawsuit abuse groups are innately dishonest, not only because they deliberately hide their special-interest parentage from the public, but also because they’re not really against abusive lawsuits. It’s only legal actions  against big corporations that get their knickers in a knot. On the other hand, when those same corporations turn their powerhouse legal departments against the hoi polloi (consumers, small businesses, environmental groups, etc.), we never hear a peep of complaint from a CALA about abuse. Curiously inconsistent, huh?

For example, where is their outrage about Hansen Beverage Inc., the nationwide, billion-dollar marketer of “Monster” energy drinks? This Goliath has unleashed its legal hounds to go chasing clear across the continent to take a big bite out of a tiny David in Morrisville, Vt. There, Matt and Renee Nadeau have created a local business producing artisan beers. Their Rock Art Brewery employs seven people, and they make a terrific brew with the bodacious name of, “The Vermonster.”

When this label hit the sensitive radar of Hansen Beverage, the corporate lawyers fired off a nuclear e-mail to the Nadeaus, demanding that they cease and desist from using the Vermonster name — or be sued. Sued for what? For infringing on Hansen’s “Monster” trademark, barked the cross-country lawyers, adding that Rock Art’s use of “Vermonster” would “undoubtedly create a likelihood of (consumer) confusion” between the two brands.

Uh, we make a beer not an energy drink, replied the Nadeaus — and our beer comes in a 22-ounce brown bottle that looks nothing like a Hansen product.

Common sense, however, is not spoken by corporate lawyers, and the Hansen gang promptly shifted from frivolous to abusive, demanding the surrender of the label, plus compensation to cover Hansen’s high-priced legal fees.

Corporate executives and lawyers know that they can drag out cases like this for years. The timeline takes no skin off the nose of billion-dollar outfits with their own legal staffs, but a protracted fight can quickly bankrupt a small business. Thus, even though the corporate power is in the wrong, it can usually bully the innocent into submission.

Maybe not this time, though. “Corporate America can’t be allowed to do this,” declared a defiant Matt Nadeau. So the feisty couple has mounted an online campaign to rally us consumers and others to push back against the abuse of the Hansen “monster.” They won’t get the support of the CALA frauds, but maybe they’ll get yours. Check out their revolt at www.rockartbrewery.com.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.
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