Eddie Rispone and John Bel Edwards STOCK

Eddie Rispone (left) and John Bel Edwards (right)

The commercials start with victims and villains: an innocent woman driving safely, a reckless tractor-trailer driver who strikes her car, an insurance company that refuses to pay.

That’s when Louisiana’s personal-injury attorneys swoop in — according to their own advertisements, that is — to save the day, scoring settlements that pay off the victim's expenses and throw in a little lagniappe.

They bill themselves as the heroes, the defenders of the little guys.

But in the run-up to Louisiana’s election for governor, few phrases have become more toxic than “trial lawyer.” A field of mostly Republican candidates for office, led by governor’s candidate Eddie Rispone, has weaponized the term in advertisements, stump speeches and fundraisers. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tenure was published Friday under the headline: “Louisiana: The Trial-Lawyer State.”

During his visit to Monroe to stump for Rispone last week, President Donald Trump said Edwards “is totally owned by the liberal trial lawyers.”

Rispone took the attacks on the profession a step further when he said Edwards "hurt the reputation" of his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, by going on to become a trial lawyer.

Candidates deploying this line of attack say so-called trial lawyers are the real problem with Louisiana and blame lawsuits for driving away economic development — especially oil and gas exploration — and ever-rising rates of car insurance.

But what is a trial lawyer, exactly?

It’s not just the personal-injury bar that’s under attack this election cycle. Pretty much anyone with an “esquire” after their name has become fair game for the “trial lawyer” label — including the governor himself.

Edwards has defended himself from the attacks by describing his former legal practice in Amite as typical of a country lawyer: He prepared wills, wrote contracts and dispensed legal advice to both plaintiffs and defendants. He said Rispone has tried to make him out to be something that he is not, and he challenged his opponents to find a bill he signed into law that benefits so-called trial lawyers.

So far, they haven’t produced one, although Republicans have consistently criticized Edwards’ support for suits on behalf of coastal parishes and landowners that seek to hold oil and gas companies responsible for damage they caused.

Similar criticisms have bled into the race for an open seat on the state Supreme Court as well. Hans Liljeberg, a state 5th Circuit Court of Appeal judge, has faced accusations that his campaign is too dependent on help from political action committees funded by trial lawyers, particularly those who sue oil and gas companies. Similar complaints have dogged previous judicial candidates as well, and Liljeberg has said he will not be beholden to people who contributed to his campaign.

Though Edwards and other candidates have tried to distance themselves from images of lawyers who pose atop eighteen-wheelers for billboards, their responses have not stopped the phrase “trial lawyer” from reaching a fever pitch.

“When you say ‘trial lawyer,’ it immediately sounds like a shakedown,” said G. Pearson Cross, a political scientist and associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “You get this uneasy feeling of litigation and conflict. It raises the specter of images that most people are uncomfortable with; you start thinking about the courthouse crowd and corruption.”

Anthony Ramirez, a spokesman for Rispone, said the campaign’s decision to use the label “trial lawyer” as an attack against Edwards grew out of what Rispone sees as related threads: the proliferation of lawsuits against the state’s oil and gas industry, and the billboards advertising personal-injury lawyers that pepper highways.

“We have polled high car insurance rates and the litigation climate, the effect of that on oil and gas jobs, and it is something that Louisiana cares deeply about and wants reform,” Ramirez said.

But Trey Ourso, a Democratic political operative who runs Gumbo PAC, which supports Edwards, said insulting trial lawyers is a way for Rispone to deflect attention away from his campaign’s heavy support from oil and gas and other corporate interests.

It’s beyond dispute that law firms have heavily supported Gumbo PAC since it was formed in 2015. But they don’t all consider themselves “trial lawyers.”

Attorney John Carmouche, for example — who is behind many of the lawsuits against oil and gas companies — rejects the “trial lawyer” label, saying he has more money invested in other business ventures than his law practice. He said he supports Edwards because the governor stood behind “our fight to restore the diminishing coast of Louisiana.”

“It’s easier to talk about the lawyers than the contamination in the water and soil,” Ourso said.

Goes back to Shakespeare

Lambasting lawyers is nothing new. It’s been more than 400 years since William Shakespeare wrote the line “let’s kill all the lawyers” in “Henry VI” — a phrase that would eventually become something of a war cry against attorneys, though many scholars say it was actually a defense of the legal profession.

Lawyers’ reputations started to take a dive in the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. when big businesses started pushing for tort reform — a catchall phrase for laws that make it harder for people to sue companies and thus to limit the effect lawsuits could have on businesses' bottom lines.

As corporations railed against frivolous lawsuits, portraying them as anti-capitalist, they started to smear lawyers as well, according to Michael McCann, a University of Washington professor and author of a book about the sullying of lawyers’ reputations.

“The fact that it’s still being done suggests it still has a certain amount of rhetorical power,” McCann said.

By the 1990s, tort reform had caught fire in Louisiana.

Former Gov. Mike Foster made reining in greedy trial lawyers hurting businesses with endless lawsuits a centerpiece of his campaign. Roy Fletcher, the consultant who ran it, said the former governor intentionally used the phrase “trial lawyer” over and over in his messaging. Foster won the election and signed dozens of bills that changed the litigation climate in Louisiana.

Trial lawyer groups across the country realized that they had an image problem.

The American Trial Lawyers Association changed its name in 2006 to the American Association for Justice. The Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association followed suit the same year, becoming the Louisiana Association for Justice.

The group’s current president, J. Cullens Jr., said the name change was meant to better reflect its mission. But past president Richard “Jerry” Dodson said the rebranding also reflected the taint the relatively innocuous phrase “trial lawyer” had acquired in the public imagination by then.

As Cullens noted, “Any attorney who tries cases is a trial lawyer, no matter if they represent a person who is aggrieved or an insurance company.”

Tort reform was front and center in the Capitol again this year. State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, sponsored a bill that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the state’s most powerful business lobby, deemed “the most important bill of the legislative session.”

Talbot advertised his bill as a means to lower car insurance rates; it had components like lowering the damage threshold for a jury trial from $50,000 to $5,000.

But critics, including many attorneys, argued the bill would restrict access to the courts for crash victims who deserved justice. Others said there was little evidence the bill would result in lower car insurance rates.

The bill failed 4-1 in a Senate committee a few months before election season. But the committee members who voted against it have since found themselves on the receiving end of attacks portraying them as friends of trial lawyers.

State Sen. Ryan Gatti, a Bossier City Republican, was challenged by a fellow Republican, Robert Mills, and now faces a tough runoff. The campaign has featured ads showing faux billboards of Gatti and Edwards together, “fighting for attorneys.”

Though Talbot’s bill died, it seems to have paved the way for a new series of attacks on trial lawyers this election cycle.

“It’s hard sometimes in politics to find messages that people can easily connect to, and I think that bill was the turning point,” said Lionel Rainey, a Republican political consultant who ran U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham’s campaign for governor. Abraham frequently attacked Edwards for trial lawyer connections.

“People could relate trial lawyers and our expensive car insurance,” said Rainey, who is now working with several groups that support Rispone. “And then it immediately translated into oil and gas job losses.”

Attacks' effects uncertain

It remains to be seen just how much influence the barrage of “trial lawyer” attacks will have on voters.

Several early voters casting ballots for Edwards this week in Baton Rouge said the “trial lawyer” insults had no impact on their decision.

“I can see the forest through the trees,” said Flora Davis, who voted early for Edwards and said her biggest concern for the state is health care funding.

Keith Mouton, who cast a ballot for Rispone, said he wanted to support the businessman who he’s worked with in the past and whose longtime Baton Rouge philanthropy has impressed him.

“I know John Bel Edwards has done a lot of bad for the oil industry,” Mouton said, acknowledging that the “trial lawyer” attacks partially contributed to that belief.

The phrase “trial lawyer” may not be enough to persuade voters one way or another, but it could motivate those who otherwise would not vote.

“I have a hard time seeing the election turning over whether John Bel Edwards is a trial lawyer or not,” said LSU mass communication professor Robert Mann, a former spokesman for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and a frequent critic of the GOP. “If you hate trial lawyers, you’re already for Rispone; it’s just a question of whether you vote or not.”

Trial lawyers have signaled what’s at stake in the governor’s race, saying that electing pro-tort reform candidates could drive them out of business and limit victims’ ability to seek redress for wrongs. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has voiced the opposite concern, saying that trial lawyers are killing oil and gas job prospects in the state.

Baton Rouge attorney Kenny Hooks recently sent an email encouraging other lawyers to donate to Edwards and Gatti because “your job and our profession may literally depend upon the results of the Nov. 16 election.”

Campaign finance reports for Gumbo PAC show that several attorneys made major donations afterward.

Morris Bart — known for his ubiquitous “one call, that’s all” ads — has donated $265,000 to Gumbo PAC this year. Carmouche’s firm, which already donated $200,000 to the PAC late last year, chipped in another $25,000 as well.

Gordon McKernan — known for his gigantic “G” signs and “get Gordon” slogan — donated $25,000 directly to Gumbo PAC last month. Companies that list him as the officer in Secretary of State filings contributed an additional $60,000 to the PAC within the past month as well.

Other major contributors to the PAC include New Orleans-based Cossich, Sumich, Parsiola and Taylor with $60,000 in donations this year; Baton Rouge-based Walters, Papillion, Thomas and Cullens with $55,000 in donations this year; New Orleans-based Herman, Herman and Katz with $50,000 this year; and the national Simmons, Hanly and Conroy law firm with $50,000 this year.

“If the drastic tort reform efforts proposed by the opponents of Gov. Edwards are enacted as law, the legal community will shrink dramatically, a fact that will impact all of us,” Hooks wrote in his letter.

Hooks did not return messages for this story.

Dodson, the former Louisiana Association for Justice president who is Hooks’s law partner, blamed the corporate world for stigmatizing the phrase “trial lawyer,” but said lawyers have done themselves no favors.

“My friends who advertise so profusely have not helped the situation at all,” he added.

Still, Dodson proudly embraces calling himself one.

Editor's note: This story was changed November 11, 2019 to remove a reference to the registered agent for Gordon McKernan's companies that donated to Gumbo PAC. The companies' political donations only reflect McKernan's views.

Email Andrea Gallo at agallo@theadvocate.com