One of the most vexing legal and political issues in recent years has been tort reform. Typically rooted in the idea that plaintiffs in civil cases have been able to recover excess damages or force businesses to settle frivolous cases, tort reform seeks to limit the damages that such plaintiffs and their attorneys can recover.
Pros: Bring An End to Frivolous Lawsuits
Tort reform supporters typically point to three reasons to limit damages in civil cases: the prevalence of property litigation, cases that generate excessive damages, and a chilling effect on medical malpractice cases.
Many tort reform proponents argue that these kinds of litigations constitute "nuisance suits" that force businesses to pay up to simply make a case go away, wasting time and money. Most tort reform proposals would significantly curb attorneys' ability to bring these types of cases.
Tort reform backers also point to cases in which damages have been excessive. They frequently cite the woman who received a multimillion dollar verdict against McDonald's after spilling hot coffee on herself (see Legal Zoom’s “Top Ten Frivolous Lawsuits”).
Finally, medical doctors argue that medical malpractice suits often represent a mix of nuisance cases and excessive damages, driving up health care costs. They frequently cite evidence that higher premiums for medical malpractice insurance are reducing the number of doctors in high-risk practices.
Cons: Don't Tilt System Toward the Powerful
The most vocal opponents of tort reform are, unsurprisingly, attorneys who represent plaintiffs in civil cases. Certainly, lawyers have a higher opinion of their role in society than is painted by tort reform proponents. A slip and fall lawyer in Los Angeles characterizes the issue simply: “The law gives victims of accidents that are caused by the negligence, recklessness, or intentional conduct of another the right to seek monetary compensation for their injuries, both physical and economic, from the responsible party.”
Civil attorneys offer a simple argument, backed by consumer protection groups, that limiting awards in civil cases would remove an important check against misconduct by businesses, doctors, and other organizations.
These tort reform opponents cite cases where major corporations committed serious legal violations and were only held accountable by a civil verdict. For instance, the massive lawsuits against tobacco companies for hiding evidence about nicotine forced massive changes across the industry.
On a more granular level, opponents of tort reform argue that slip and fall attorneys play a valuable role by providing a financial reason for businesses to abide by health and safety regulations.
According to tort reform opponents, capping damages - and making it harder to sue - would allow companies to run roughshod over the public and remove the recourse that keeps companies, doctors, and others honest.
Action Remains Elusive
Arguments on both sides of tort reform have been made across the country in recent years. While the issue continues to be debated, there has been little appetite for actually passing the biggest reforms at the federal level. It remains to be seen if that will change anytime soon.