For more than half a century, various incarnations of tort reform have threatened the integrity of our courts. Starting in the 1950s, the insurance industry led the charge. Realizing that insurers were ultimately held responsible for compensating personal injury victims, the industry launched a blistering – and often misleading – public relations campaign.
Insurers pioneered the idea of targeting potential jurors through magazine ads. These ads sought to demonize lawsuits and bias jurors against personal injury plaintiffs. Many depicted fictionalized lawsuits to ignite anti-lawsuit sentiment, hypothesizing that jurors biased against lawsuits would decide in favor of defendants, and therefore insurance companies, more often.
In the late 1980s, insurers and big business joined forces to take the tort reform fight to another arena. In addition to targeting jurors in an attempt to influence lawsuit outcomes, tort reform advocates began targeting verdicts through legislation. Insurers and corporations began lobbying pro-business conservatives to push legislation that would impose caps on damages.
Even if their public relations campaign failed to make jurors sympathetic to business interests, tort reform advocates could now limit jurors’ ability to impose awards. This tactic proved to be especially successful, and by 1986, more than 39 states had enacted legislation to limit awards.
The next tort reform transformation came in the early 1990s. In another attempt to sway public opinion and disguise tort reform’s true backers, insurers and corporations created “grassroots” organizations to spread their message. Cloaked as concerned citizens, these new tort reform groups paraded themselves as ordinary Americans fed up with an increasingly litigious society. These groups were much more sympathetic mouthpieces than Fortune 500 companies, which funneled millions into their coffers, single-handedly supporting their mission.
The tort reform battle still rages today. Advocates continue to exploit public opinion through public relations, misleading reports, lobbying, and manufactured “grassroots” organizations.