By Ralph Nader
The mass media is reluctant to recognize civic heroes unless they display physical bravery such as rushing into a burning building to save a child. The media also lavishes vast coverage on sports heroes and entertainers.
Unnoticed by the mass media was how it came about that the Illinois legislature, overcome by corporate lobbyists, passed legislation allowing punitive damages for wrongful death disasters, and sent the bill to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker who signed it last Friday.
In the words of one state lawmaker, this effort started with “that lady from New England who drove down here (to Springfield, Illinois) and shamed us all.” That lady was my niece Nadia Milleron, who lost her daughter Samya Rose Stumo – an emerging leader in global health – to the defective Boeing 737 Max that crashed in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, killing all 156 people on board. (Earlier on October 29, 2018, a similar also new Boeing 737 Max crashed off Indonesia’s coast, killing all 189 passengers and crew.)
Nadia was determined that families in the future who lost their loved ones to reckless corporate actions and crimes would not be told by Illinois courts that, were people rendered disabled, they could collect punitive damages—but not if their lives were taken. The cruel absurdity of this perverse rule that lets companies escape punitive damages under the law of torts (wrongful injuries) if their recklessness or greed kills their victims, but not if they injure them, was too much for Nadia to tolerate.
Driven by her love of Samya and her determination to end this gross injustice, she spent months away from her Massachusetts home in 2022 getting appointments with every Illinois Assemblyperson – 177 of them – to plead her case in person. None of the naysayers she encountered in the lobbying circles around the legislature deterred her, not even some plaintiff trial lawyers.
By the sheer force of her legal and factual arguments, her moral authority and a few senior political advisors in Chicago, she laid the groundwork for action earlier last year. The Illinois Wrongful Death Act was championed by a young African-American state lawmaker, Rep. La Shawn K. Ford. Once it started moving through the Assembly (with little media attention) it gained momentum among the new Assembly leadership that carried through to the new leadership of the State Senate. Both legislative Houses are controlled by Democrats.
Nadia came to this challenge in Illinois, where the Stumo family civil tort litigation against Boeing is pending, with experience in battling the giant Boeing corporation’s power to get its way in Washington, DC. For months after Boeing’s homicides in Ethiopia (See, September 16, 2020, News Release from the House Committee on Transportation), Nadia and her husband Mike (both non-practicing lawyers), with the help of their two articulate sons, and other relentless, bereaved families, worked the corridors and offices of Congress, pressing for public hearings and legislation. Their efforts, punctuated by public demonstrations, culminated in the passage of federal legislation to start the process of strengthening air safety regulations.
The Stumos and their family network also focused on the derelict FAA which, over the years, had transformed itself from a supposed aviation safety regulator to a weak, consultant’s role. The agency literally delegated regulatory decisions and inspections to deputized Boeing employees on the factory floor and in the design offices. Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers made sure that Congress did not object and indeed had Congress facilitate this delegation, including by keeping the FAA’s regulatory budget and skilled staff too small to regulate directly and forcefully.
Nonetheless, with astute and newsworthy press conferences and accurate responsiveness to media inquiries, the families pushed the FAA to be a little more hands-on and probing than it was up to 2019.
When the punitive damage bill passed the Illinois legislature, Governor Pritzker had 60 days to either sign it or let it become law. He chose to sign it on August 12th without any ceremony, without having Nadia, the young Assemblyman Ford and other senior state lawmakers by his side. Had he made it an event, he would have memorably conveyed the key motivating belief in a democracy – that one person can make a difference!
Citizen Nadia blazed the way, shaming the foot-dragging Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) into jumping on the bandwagon in Springfield once the bill’s momentum grew.
On February 27, 2023, I wrote a letter to the President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, Patrick A. Salvi II, wondering why the ITLA hadn’t pushed this initiative over many past years and urged them to “make the maximum effort to secure passage.” Trial Lawyer Associations do not usually answer letters, but this one got through, with copies to other interested parties. (See the letter here).
Our country, over time, has been helped immeasurably by outraged mothers (and fathers) turning their unabating mourning over the loss of their children into laser beam intensity behind health and safety laws to save other parents and children from similar tragedies. (Note e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
These civic heroes defy all odds to challenge and prevail. The odds don’t faze them; they have a higher calling to achieve.
Unfortunately, neither Governor Pritzker nor the mass media seized this dramatic moment for exemplary recognition. The law, however, now is on the books to further more humane and deterrent purposes, thanks “to that Lady from New England who shamed us all.”