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Judge and Gavel
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  • Richard L. Duquette

Corporate Culture and Bicyclists: Part 1 of 3 Plaintiffs' Attorneys and Reforming Corporate Culture©

Honest corporate profitability drives the American economy. But, rogue corporate business practices hurt Americans.

Take Volkswagen, who schemed to program nearly 600,000 vehicles to deceive the environmental protection agency. This resulted in VW agreeing to pay a 4.3 billion criminal and civil penalty, and up to 11 billion in vehicle buy backs!

Then, there is Wells Fargo Bank who created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts without their customers' knowledge, so they could "earn" unwarranted fees to make more money! This led to $185 million in fines and a five million refund to customers.

To maintain a check and balance in our corporate culture, plaintiff attorneys are needed.

To that end, this article is the first in a series of three that discusses corporate culture as related to bicyclists.

Plaintiff's attorneys are sometimes villainized as a part of our popular culture. Some people hold the view that plaintiff's lawyers are simply trying to get rich off of the misfortunes of others. Even those with more sympathetic views feel plaintiff's lawyers are a necessary evil.

But in fact, plaintiff's attorneys do provide tangible positive benefits to society, including the business world. One of the clearest historical examples of this has been that the possibility of a lawsuit has always been a great deterrent against dangerous practices and an incentive to greater standards of care. Plaintiff's attorneys and insurers (who often work against each other in litigation) have combined to make the world a safer place in many respects. Insurers want to prevent liability, so they invest in product safety research as well as policies to prevent accidents. Meanwhile attorneys have created a system of liability that promotes safety and accountability, sometimes with class action suits. To their credit, many forward-thinking corporations are self-regulating.

But there's more to this than a general deterrent effect. Forward thinking corporate executives align their responsibilities with long term business interests. "In a study of 180 U.S. companies from 1993 through 2010, for example, researchers at Harvard Business School and the London School of Business documented that firms that explicitly considered employees, customers, the community and the environment in their strategies and business models significantly outperformed those that did not in stock market performance, return on assets and return on equity."

See: "The Impact of Corporate Sustainability on Organizational Processes and Performance", by Robert G. Eccles, loannis loannou and George Serafeim.

In San Diego County two such forward thinking 501c (3) non-profits exemplify that culture. The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and the San Diego Mountain Biking Association (SDMBA). CAF assists injured veterans in providing prosthetic devices and the SDMBA promotes access to open space and trail building. Both non-profits promote a healthy lifestyle.

Corporate Responsibility – A Case Study in Change

Many settlements aren't just about money. They often involve policy changes at the corporate level. I personally litigated one bicycle injury case in which the transit companies responsible for my client's injuries have willingly taken steps, as part of settlement agreements, to improve bicycle awareness training for their drivers. Some work with nonprofit organizations to prevent future accidents.

Of course, the money matters to the injured plaintiff. But the "other" terms of the settlement can matter to a lot of potential victims as well. I credit First Transit, Inc. for their willingness to further advance bus-bicycle safety policies and procedures. That case was not just a victory for my client, and it wasn't just a loss for these companies either. It was a chance for them to not only compensate the injured victim, but also to create safer roads moving forward. Now, I see local buses with positive bicycle safety messages posted on the back of their buses, as they drive the city streets. For example, "Drive Aware & Share", or "Bikes, it's too Tight to Pass on the Right". These safety graphics are viewed by thousands of motorists a day.

Through litigation, companies (and government entities) can be pressured to take proactive steps, not only to reduce future liability exposure, but to develop positive relationships with at risk communities. Recently, publication of litigation of unsafe city trees, sidewalks and streets have increased the awareness that preventative maintenance is a critical priority. Plus it's more cost effective than paying our millions in lawsuits. The law can be a tool for policy change—specifically for developing safer and more accountable policies.

This is true beyond my specialty of bicycle injury law also. Consumer protections, worker protections, and environmental protections can all be advanced by legal action. And again, it's not just about the money. It's about changing corporate culture and turning tragedies into teachable moments. It's been said that attorneys get involved when human relationships break down. There's some truth to that. But plaintiff or consumer attorneys also help put things on a course so that future breakdowns can be avoided. In the context of representing injured bicyclists, this means working with public entity defendants to create safer conditions for all bicyclists. i.e. fixing street potholes and implementing bicycles safety infrastructure and bus transit awareness programs. These are some of the constructive contributions that plaintiff lawyers make to society that often go unnoticed.

© 2017 Richard L. Duquette and Justin M. Nelson. All rights reserved. April 14, 2017


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