Every so often when flipping through the nightly news or coverage of the happenings in Washington D.C., you may come across the mysterious phrase “tort reform.” The talking heads, pundits or expert commentators will debate the merits of the concept as if the average joe on the street were expected to have in depth knowledge of the term, much less its implications.
For the way of a brief synopsis, a tort is any wrongful act by another person, company or government body that infringes on your rights. Tort law is the basis for just about any civil litigation, from car accidents to slip and falls to injury caused by malfunctioning products. When people mention tort reform, what they are referring to are proposed changes to the laws and judicial procedures in either state or at the federal level, that would change how individuals can bring legal action in civil tort cases and the damages they can recover. Here we break down why you should care about tort reform or what impact it may have on your current or future lawsuit or legal claim.
Let’s first remember that the phrase “tort reform” was generated by large corporations and insurance companies that aim to turn profits every day, as personal injury or auto accident lawyer Atlanta GA trusts can attest.
Proponents of tort reform argue that the current system of justice in the U.S. costs businesses disproportionately to other countries. They argue that the system is unfair because a great amount of resources are put into defending lawsuits brought by consumers or individuals injured because of their products or actions. That simply is not true.
In reality, the current justice system is set up in a way that holds these entities accountable for their actions. Consumers expect that the normal use of a product will not harm themselves or their families. When these expectations are not met, the current tort system allows for compensation of actual injuries, as well as certain damages that punish the producer for their lack of quality control or other faulty action as a way to prevent them from injuring others in the future through similar actions. Many businesses will put up their profits above the safety of a consumer. That is a fact. Businesses, hospitals, and companies are built to make profit. A tort is an injury and when an injury occurs, the responsible party should at least be able to be held accountable.
Out of the numerous proposals of the tort reform movement, limits on non-economic damages in civil cases rank up there with the most commonly suggested. Currently, when someone has been injured it’s often left up to the judge or jury (in the case of a jury trial) to decide what the appropriate award should be for things such as pain and suffering, permanent injuries such as the loss of life or limb, or other non-tangible damages. Tort reform seeks to place hard limits or caps on these amounts. These limits are often arbitrary and don’t reflect the individual nature of each particular circumstance. These proposals can potentially place artificial caps on the amount that you can recover in your legal action.
Another common proposal of tort reform activists is lessening the amount of time in which individuals must bring tort claims. Most states already have existing laws called statutes of limitations that define how long someone has after the date of damage or injury in which to initiate a lawsuit or other monetary demand. Lessening these time limits can often have serious impacts on those who are trying to recover from an injury or other wrongdoing. In some cases, it may take months or years for the full extent of damages from a wrongful act to become known. Decreasing the time also puts additional pressures on plaintiffs to file a lawsuit when their time and energies could be better spent recovering or working towards making their lives whole before proceeding with a lengthy trial.
Another set of hurdles tort reform activists seek to place in front of plaintiffs are limitations, or elimination, of punitive damages and the removal of the right to a jury trial for certain claims. These two concepts go hand in hand in cases where a person or company is proven to have committed especially harmful acts. Punitive damages act as a deterrent to prevent future bad behavior and the amount is determined by a jury at trial. In some states, punitive damages are capped at a multiplier of the original value of the harm inflicted. In other cases, the amount may be unlimited.
Greatly reducing punitive damages through caps, or eliminating them altogether, eliminates this important deterrent from plaintiff’s arsenals. The largest of companies may have very little economic incentive to correct faulty products or conditions if punitive damages are eliminated, thus justifying the economic equation for not changing their behavior. By eliminating jury trials, judges who have become politicized would be allowed to set punitive damages amounts. Judges already have a great deal of discretion for reducing awards and juries are often in the better position to understand the immediate impact of an injury on one of their peers.
Overall, tort reform is costly to consumers and has the impact of de-incentivizing large companies from acting in their best interest of their consumers. The next time you hear one of those talking heads mention the need for tort reform, remember that those two little words may have a big impact on you or your family in the event of an accident or injury.
Thanks to our friends and contributors from Butler Tobin for their insight into tort reform and personal injury practice.