San Diego Business Journal

While shopping for that holiday present, it would be good to pause and appreciate those millions of independent small businesses that provide the goods and services this thriving nation depends upon.

Today, such enterprises form the economic bedrock of the greatest democratic experiment ever undertaken.

But like finding the perfect gift, a growing number of small firms are finding themselves in a difficult spot, victims of trial lawyers who have discovered a new way to carve up these entrepreneurs: asbestos lawsuits.

Using high-profile advertisements touting large-dollar awards to entice clients to join their scheme, a segment of the legal profession has created what the U.S. Supreme Court labels an "asbestos-litigation crisis." More than 300,000 asbestos-related lawsuits are pending; some 100,000 were filed in 2003 alone.

It takes courage to stand up to the powerful trial lawyers. That's exactly what the NFIB Legal Foundation demonstrated when it stepped forward and asked the New York Court of Appeals to reject a claim that a spouse suffered asbestos injuries while washing her husband's contaminated work clothes.

In a victory for small businesses, the court handed down a decision that will protect millions of employers against liability suits from third-party claimants. The ruling accurately determined that an employer's duty to provide a safe workplace is limited to employees and does not extend to others such as spouses.

But don't expect this ruling to dissuade the trial lawyer gangs. Their assault on the business sector , playing the asbestos card , has already spawned more than 300,000 pending lawsuits and bankrupted more than 70 businesses. And now they are attempting a new tactic, using mass screenings to enlist anyone who has ever been near a smidgen of asbestos. One estimate suggests that about 90 percent of new claims are being filed on behalf of plaintiffs who have little or no impairment from exposure.

Lawsuit abusers currently swipe more than $200 billion a year by gaming the nation's tort system. Given the fact that the typical small-business owner's income is less than $50,000 and that defending oneself in court in a single lawsuit costs about $100,000, there is reason for concern.

Worry also mounts among small employers because they are prime targets for trial lawyers who view them as easier pickings than big companies that have the financial resources to vigorously defend themselves.

As America pauses to celebrate this holiday season, it would be wise for the nation to remember four words that were written by a small group of visionaries gathered in the cabin of a ship destined to become famous.

In the Mayflower Compact, they agreed to govern themselves with "just and equal laws." The predatory actions of fee-hungry trial lawyers make a mockery of that historic agreement and threaten to undermine the legal foundation of a nation that was built upon free enterprise.

Congress must move quickly to avert this national crisis by enacting lawsuit reform that restores our founders' visions. The longer lawmakers delay, the more small firms will fall victim to the trial lawyers' hatchets.

Jack Faris is the president of the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation's largest small-business advocacy group.