Dan Quayle began the attack on trial lawyers. Newt Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, made tort reform a big part of his agenda. Now Sarah Palin has jumped on the band wagon.
The tort reform they advocate is the legislative limitation of damages that can be recovered in civil action. They’ve said that should be done because tort litigation is done for the good of greedy lawyers.
Let’s look at the record of tort reform. For it is already been enacted into law in a number of places, and you can see its results.
You can see it now in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP spilt huge amounts of oil. For hand-in-hand with Dick Cheney’s deregulation of the oil industry was the Congress’s limitation of civil liability for the oil companies.
With little regulation from the government, the oil companies conducted little self-regulation. And without the spectre of big money damages, they had little incentive to safely drill or transport oil. Hence the current mess.
Tort reform can also be seen in the wake of 9/11. For after that disaster the Congress was more worried about the finances of the airlines than anything else. After the fact they limited the airlines’ liability, and survivors and families of those lost never recovered what they should have been given.
What did this do for the airlines? Well, the airlines have not, even close to nine years later, developed an effective system of screening potential terrorists. Their gaffes have been notorious. They have tried to get attention off themselves only by harassing regular American citizens at airports.
What the advocates of tort reform do not tell us is that the common law system of tort litigation has long developed ways of screening frivolous lawsuits. Such lawsuits can be dismissed on motion. And where juries have award irrationally high sums, the law allows judges to cut the damages.
Business people, if they are effective in running their companies, will limit their costs. This will include matters of safety. Thus without the threat of civil liability, they will not provide for the safety of their employees, their customers, the general public or the environment.
If we are to promote that safety, then we should be working to remove the statutory restrictions on civil liability. Lawyers are the butt of jokes. Tort litigation is widely frowned on. But it is necessary for the public good.