The CAOC Story
Consumer Attorneys of California was founded as the California Plaintiff Trial Lawyers Association on April 8, 1961, in Palm Springs. The name was later shortened to California Trial Lawyers Association, and in 1995 it was changed to Consumer Attorneys of California. The group was California’s first and still is the only statewide professional association of lawyers who represent plaintiffs in civil actions, such as wrongful death, personal injury, medical malpractice, employment discrimination, elder abuse, civil rights violations, product liability, environmental degradation and financial fraud.
The association was founded to promote camaraderie among California trial lawyers and to provide a educational platform to make members of the plaintiff bar more effective advocates for their clients. It soon became clear that members needed support not just in the courtroom but at the state Capitol, where business and insurance interests promote legislation to restrict consumer access to the civil justice system. As trial skills improved within the plaintiffs bar, business and insurance interests decided to turn to legislation to accomplish what they were no longer able to win in the courtroom.
Melvin Belli, one of the founders of
the Consumer Attorneys of California.
CAOC’s first legislative triumph came in 1972, when its efforts helped defeat a no-fault auto insurance bill that appeared to be headed for certain passage. The bill never reached Governor Ronald Reagan’s desk, dying in the state Senate. Another attempt at no-fault in 1974 was with CAOC’s help defeated in the Assembly by one vote.
But the next year saw the association endure one of the toughest blows of its first half century of existence, as the state adopted the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA) that limits compensation for those most seriously injured by medical negligence. In the years after MICRA, CAOC was largely successful in fighting anti-consumer legislation with an increased emphasis on political advocacy, including the establishment of a political action committee in 1976.
But then business and insurance interests changed tactics and began to bypass the legislative process, instead pushing their agenda through ballot initiatives, starting with Proposition 51 in 1986 to end joint and several liability for non-economic damages, thus shifting the burden of loss to the victim of harm.
CAOC was part of the famed “Napkin Deal” in 1987, which prevented the limits on non-economic damages established in MICRA from being extended to all tort cases. Such a move would have been a major blow to consumer rights. After negotiations with, among others, the California Medical Association, California Chamber of Commerce, the Association of California Insurance Companies and the tobacco industry, the main points of an agreement were written on a napkin at Frank Fat’s restaurant, two blocks from the state Capitol. The framed napkin still hangs on a wall near the entrance to the restaurant. Power brokers like Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and state Sen. Bill Lockyer were present to sign off on the deal and shepherd it through the Legislature.
The détente that followed the “Napkin Deal” proved short lived. Corporate interests soon were angling to undercut consumers’ legal rights through the ballot box. CAOC went on to defeat anti-consumer ballot measures in 1988 and 1990. Then in 1996 came a huge battle, when three initiatives qualified for the March primary ballot: Proposition 200 to create no-fault auto insurance and taken vehicle crashes out of the civil justice system; Proposition 201 making it significantly more difficult for stockholders to sue over financial fraud; and Proposition 202 to limit contingency fees. Mary Alexander, who was CAOC’s president that year, labeled them “The Terrible 200s.” That election is best remembered for the “Corporate Wolves” television commercial CAOC produced, with a narrator warning that “corporate wolves” were coming to destroy consumer rights, while a wolf pack was shown running through woods. All three initiatives were defeated, with Propositions 200 and 201 losing by overwhelming margins.
CAOC produced a short documentary about their history narrated by former president John A. Montevideo. You can view the video by clicking on the image above.
From 2005 to 2007, during the administration of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, CAOC again demonstrated its clout by turning aside five anti-consumer ballot measures before their proponents could even get them on the ballot. Among them were measures that would have eliminated Californians’ right to file class actions, weakened the ability of juries to impose punitive damages and made it more difficult to file disability and home construction defect suits.
The three dozen attorneys who came together in Palm Springs in 1961 to form a unified plaintiffs bar could scarcely have imagined so much time would be spent battling corporate interests in the Legislature and at the ballot box. But those founding attorneys can take pride in building an organization that evolved as the political environment changed. The experience of the past half century gives us confidence that CAOC will rise to meet all challenges to bringing justice to all.
CAOC Presidents: 1961-present
A Day in Palm Springs (pdf), FORUM Magazine: CAOC 50th Anniversary Issue, March/April 2011.
The Desert Fox (pdf), FORUM Magazine: CAOC 50th Anniversary issue, March/April, 2011.
The CAOC Story: Documentary film on CAOC’s first 50 years.