If you had the chance to watch the “Hot Coffee” documentary a few weeks ago, then you were fortunate to get a glimpse at the very personal side of going through a lawsuit and the importance that our civil justice system plays in ensuring that everyone—even the most disadvantaged—have access to justice. Unfortunately, however, that system has been under attack for a number of years, under a benignly named movement called “tort reform”. But those words—tort reform—spark some pretty heated debate about just how open our courts should be to the everyday plaintiff.
Around the same time that Hot Coffee aired, Fox’s John Stossel also aired a show focusing on the need for tort reform and criticizing “frivolous” lawsuits for ruining our justice system. It’s ironic that Stossel himself once benefitted greatly from that system and has now turned against it. But more than a single commentator’s personal opinion on lawsuits in the United States, it’s important to actually get the facts straight.
Tort reform is often promoted as a necessary evil to promote business development, keep insurance rates in check, make sure doctors and other professionals aren’t practicing their trade out of a fear of lawsuits, and a host of other goals. These objectives are fine in and of themselves. The problems is the causal link that tort reformers make. The fact of the matter is that lawsuits themselves are not contributing to these problems and so fixing the legal system is not going to fix the problems.
Check out some of this information pulled together by the American Association for Justice:
The number of torts lawsuits filed is NOT rising; rather, between 1985 and 2003, the number of federal torts cases fell by 79%; at the state level torts trials decreased 31.8% between 1992 and 2001. In addition, torts cases account for only 4.4% of all civil cases filed in 2008.
There is no link between rising health care costs and tort litigation. While it is true that health care costs are rising, medical malpractice litigation is not responsible. This type of litigation amounts to a mere 2% of all health care spending.
Lawsuits do NOT hurt small businesses. Surveys indicate that lawsuit abuse is not a primary concern for small business owners. Instead, it is overwhelmingly large corporations—particularly, drug, oil and insurance companies—that push the tort reform agenda and claim to be fighting for small business.
Lawsuits are NOT trying to drive companies out of business; rather lawsuits promote a strong civil justice system that holds wrongdoers accountable.
Trial attorneys are NOT “milking the system”; attorneys who represent plaintiffs only recover on successful cases and offer an important opportunity for individuals without financial resources to stand up for their rights.
The rise in insurance rates is NOT linked to lawsuits. Insurance companies themselves have admitted that damages caps will not result in lower premiums. Plus, the insurance industry has been posting near-record amounts of profits, which casts doubt on their claim that they are crippled by litigation.
Whatever your position on tort reform and whatever your political leaning, this is a serious issue. Thousands of individual Americans every year are injured or wronged in some way, and those individuals need and deserve access to justice. If we’re going to have a public debate on this important issue, we owe it to ourselves to have a debate that isn’t based on emotion or heated rhetoric, but one that is based in fact. The tort system cannot just keep being the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in the country or else nothing will get fixed.