The Law Featured

10:09am EDT July 22, 2002

The Law

Big awards for just about anything

By John Ettorre

To understand where the law-at least as it applies to private business owners-is headed, all you need to do is refer to a single 3-by-5-inch postcard.

Mass-mailed recently by a Columbus personal-injury law firm to potential clients throughout the state, it trumpets a young attorney's recent entrance into the million-dollar club, the elite fraternity of lawyers nationwide who have won civil cases reaping seven-figure damage awards.

That a firm in a profession which once prided itself on its cloistered professionalism and sense of duty to the larger common good would so boldly publicize such an event says something which shouldn't be lost on anyone who owns a business: Watch your back. And front. And sides.

Need further proof that the legal environment is growing ever more perilous? Hop on the Internet and get ahold of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in March, Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Services. It opens a dangerous new avenue in tort law: the ability to recover from an employer damages arising from same-sex harassment.

To make matters worse, the opinion was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, easily the most conservative, business-friendly member of the court, a man once considered a bulwark against social-engineering schemes.

If all that's insufficiently alarming, there's yet another court case looming just over the horizon, according to watchers of the high court: a case which later this year will explore the question of whether employers could be held liable for the bad actions of even non-supervisory employees.

How to react to all this? You might earmark a portion of the dividend from the strong economy to upgrading your human-resources staff or your legal counsel on employment matters, on the theory that an ounce of prevention is worth several million dollars of cure.

Better yet, you might think about ways of integrating the legal and HR functions. The smartest companies increasingly view those formerly discreet disciplines as different sides of the very same coin. Can HR managers with legal degrees be very far off?