What types of cases are tort reform targets?

The war against our courts is being waged on several fronts. Tort reform advocates have targeted the civil justice system in general and the following litigation in particular:

Tort reform advocates – particularly medical associations and doctors – frequently bemoan America’s “medical malpractice crisis.” They claim patients are filing frivolous lawsuits, putting doctors out of business, and increasing healthcare costs for all of us.

While a medical malpractice crisis does exist, it’s results aren’t just monetary – they’re fatal. According to the Institute of Medicine, medical errors kill 98,000 Americans every year – more than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and drunk driving combined – and that 80 percent of those errors are preventable. Despite these numbers, studies show that medical malpractice lawsuits are uncommon, constituting only three percent of the civil tort caseload.

Insurance companies, the biggest benefactors of medical malpractice tort reform, also argue that litigation is driving up healthcare costs for all of us. They claim huge payouts are forcing them to increase the premiums they charge doctors for liability insurance, and that doctors are inflating medical bills with defensive medicine to protect themselves from potential suits. In reality, the healthcare crisis is completely dependent upon insurance trends and has little or nothing to do with real-world healthcare costs.

Medical negligence compensation accounts for only 0.3 percent of national healthcare costs. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the total amount spent defending medical malpractice claims and compensating victims is $7.1 billion – just 0.3 percent of America’s $2.2 trillion in healthcare spending.

Ironically, the real drivers of healthcare costs are preventable medical errors, which are responsible for an additional – and unnecessary – $29 billion in annual spending. Instead of offering solutions to non-existent problems, we should focus on making healthcare safer – and less expensive – for everyone.

Unsurprisingly, insurance companies are behind attempted tort reforms to auto accident litigation. Their motive is also unsurprising: They want to hold on to as much of their customers’ premium payments as possible and pay out claims as little as possible.

Imagine you’re an insurance executive. Every driver is a potential customer, so you’re premium profits are skyrocketing. However, the problem is, you have to pay out every time one of those customers gets into an accident. What should you do?

The answer insurance companies settled on was “make it as difficult as possible for an injured driver or passenger to recover damages.” To that end, insurers have lobbied for laws that invalidate a plaintiff’s rights to sue or recover non-economic damages under technicalities that have nothing to do with who was at fault.

In addition to lobbying, insurers are notorious for doing anything and everything to avoid paying damages. In a series of documents uncovered in an auto accident lawsuit, it was shown that AllState consulted with a firm to develop a strategy for denying, delaying, and fighting claims. The goal was to wear the plaintiff down until they finally accepted a less fair settlement.

When an insurance company sells your insurance, they’re selling you a contract. Their attempts to reform auto accident litigation is akin to revising the contract after you’ve signed it.

Workers compensation was created to balance the scales between employers and their employees, but if insurance companies and big business have their say, the scale would be tipped in their favor against America’s working families.

Tort reformers have long painted injured workers as scammers trying to manipulate the system. They depict lazy workers with minor injuries receiving paychecks for the rest of their lives. In actuality, no one gets rich off of workplace injuries – but that hasn’t stopped insurance companies and big business from trying.

The average amount of lost pay due to an injury is just 60 percent at its highest. Why would a worker jeopardize their health and financial security for a 40 percent pay cut?

In addition to the propaganda war against working Americans, tort reformers are trying to pass legislation that changes how our courts function. Some states have forfeited fairness and given the benefit of the doubt almost entirely to the employer. Skewing the results in their favor from the outset has denied disabled workers the benefits they’re entitled to and made every workplace less safe.

Some states dictate that injured workers can only be examined by “company physicians,” who work for the employer. Other states have instituted statutes that set a limit on how much workers’ compensation attorneys can charge their clients, while their employers are free to spend as much as possible on their defense.

Instead of denying workers the benefits they deserve, employers should focus on making every workplace as safe as possible.

Product liability is where tort reformers have been most successful. Through rabid propaganda, big business has biased jurors and the public against consumers and in support of negligent manufacturers.

Tort reformers consistently rely on reports of plaintiffs who used a product in such an obviously incorrect or dangerous way and went on to secure millions in damages. The problem with these reports are that a majority are fake or have a tenuous relation to the truth. Even if a consumer were to use a product in a completely inappropriate manner, our courts have an abundance of safeguards to dispatch frivolous lawsuits.

When you buy a product, you have a reasonable expectation for it to perform as advertised without causing injury to you or your loved one. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their product and compensate innocent consumers for their negligence.

A mass tort, or class action lawsuit, is basically injury on a larger scale. When multiple victims have been injured by the same product, they can file a lawsuit as a group instead of individually. Mass tort cases typically involve defective products or pharmaceuticals. Because of the scale of the injuries and the plaintiffs involved, mass torts are a big financial threat to corporations and insurers, and therefore, a big target for the tort reform movement.

Mass torts are subject to more stringent requirements that other personal injury claims. Such suits require the court’s permission to proceed, but even with those added requirements, tort reformers want to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to pool their resources and receive justice as a group. Injured plaintiffs will be less likely to sue or more likely to settle for smaller amounts in a David vs. Goliath battle against corporate interests. Facing a victim one-on-one is preferable for a corporation or insurance company, who can then bully an injured person without the support of similarly injured plaintiffs.