Why civil justice system needs reform
Every time an election takes place, those involved in the running promise one thing to the people: change. Those that have come through with sought after changes usually enjoy many terms in office. For many years politicians have promised change in one specific field. However, this area remains twisted and distorted. The civil justice system is abounding with problems. Politicians just do not seem to keep their promises when it comes to this system. Every day we see adds for lawyers that want calls from people injured by accident. They promise results, and every day, hundreds of people call in and file lawsuits. But how can the court system deal with all these suits? Something has to be done. Therefore, the civil justice system needs an instant overhaul.
A man in prison filed a $5 million lawsuit against himself. He claimed that he had violated his own civil rights by getting arrested! The inmate said, “I want to pay myself $5 million, but ask the state to pay it on my behalf since I can’t work and am a ward of the state” (CALA). A jury awarded $178,000 in damages to a woman who sued her former fiance for breaking their seven-week engagement. The breakdown: $93,000 for pain and suffering, $60,000 for loss of income from her legal practice, and $25,000 for psychiatric counseling expenses. A man joined a group to learn, among other things, to fly through self-levitation. Unsatisfied with the results, he claimed psychological and physical damages and sued the group for $9 million. A drunk driver was speeding, careened passed detour signs and crashed. “He sued the engineering firm that designed the road, the contractor, four subcontractors, and state highway department property which owned both sides of the road” (CALA). Five years later, all of the defendants settled for $35,000. This swamped the engineering firm with more than $200,000 in legal costs. One final display of the system at work comes from South Carolina. One day this family decided to take a car ride with their kids. However, they failed to buckle their youngest in. Then they ran a red light, were hit by a passing motorist and rolled over several times. As a result of this horrible accident, the young child died in the back seat. The family sued the maker of the van for not making a latch that could withstand such stress. This latch “failed” and allowed the rear door to open, letting the young boy fly out. In court, a jury awarded this family “$12.5 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages for a grand total of $262.5 million” (CALA). So how did the system degenerate into this sorry state?
The wrong people tried to convert a complicated system of laws into a more cognizable system. In the past lawsuits were a reasonable way to get compensation when someone did something wrong to another person. Several steps were involved in bringing this lawsuit to court. These steps included clearly writing out the complaint, in full, for the court. Also, the lawyer had to pick a specific, predetermined type of suit to help expedite the proceedings. These rules were kept strictly. For example, a judge dismissed one case because the defendant miscalculated the total damages by “57? cents” (Olson 94). In order to not only sure up the system, but to attempt to make it more fair, many began to push for change. Lawyers led this push because they wanted fewer “hoops” to jump through. So gradually, especially through the 1920′s and 30′s, they made attempts to streamline. One major change suggested by a former lawyer gave a common format for all lawsuits. Not only was this intended to shorten the entire process but it would also make things cheaper. However, this was not the case. This helped lawyers to have less defined or clear-cut cases. Previously, “the law’s first order of business was to contain, delimit, and pin down the case” (Olson 93). But with this new common format this was harder to do. This change also allowed lawyers to first file a suit and then check out the merit of it at another time. It became harder and harder to get cases of little merit thrown out on “technicalities, or not-so-technicalities” (Olson 101). The burden of proof was set for during the trial rather than before court time. In essence, trial lawyers pushed for an easier system, one that allows them to bring many more cases before it. The rules had good intentions, but the common thinking was to have a bunch of cases and hope that a couple pay off. With the system in a great state of change, many flaws appeared.
Frivolous lawsuits have several major ways of harming Americans. First, it prevents legitimate victims from being compensated in a timely manner. Because of the “let’s take it to court and figure it out there” attitude among many today, great deals of unnecessary cases are tying up the system (CALA). However this means that those who truly have a case often get overlooked for the more glamorous cases. “Many of today’s awards compensate plaintiffs who suffer no out-of-court expenses at all, turning the formerly troubled middle-class into formerly troubled rich people” (Olson 302). These lawsuits have a type of Robin Hood effect. They take from those that deserve less and give to more “worthy” ones. However, this leaves little money to compensate the truly victimized. Lawsuit abuse also forces companies to release workers. One study from the RAND Corporation estimates that in California alone “wrongful termination suits have reduced California’s hiring levels by as many as 650,000 jobs, causing expenses equivalent to a 10 percent across-the-board raise” (Pollock). These lawsuits and ensuing cutbacks have gone on to destroy entire industries. For example, in the early 1980′s the small-aircraft industry was booming. Then people started filing and winning lawsuits against various companies. They won despite the fact that a National Transportation Safety Board study “couldn’t find one crash caused by manufacturer…error” (Pollock).
Junk lawsuits also raise the cost of all products and services, including health care. Not only do companies raise prices to help offset the amazing cost of defeating these suits, but they have to pay higher and higher insurance premiums too. Everything we buy from hamburger meat to CDs, appliances to plane tickets include these costs. Think of how much lower doctors fees would be if they did not have to pay $40,000, $50,000, or even $100,000 a year for insurance! Frivolous lawsuits result in less innovation. Nearly a quarter of company presidents refuse to take promotions to board of directors spots for fear of getting sued. “One out of every four Silicon Valley high tech companies has been involved in at least one class action lawsuit…” (CALA). Another outrageous problem occurs in nearly a fifth of the country. In these states’ people can use product improvement against companies! They can actually go to court and argue that because a product needed improvement, it must not have been safe enough to begin with. “Forty-seven percent of companies hold back development projects over concern about product liability” (CALA). These flaws definitely need to be cleared up.
One major proposed change is a rather weak one in reality. It proposes that governments offer more compensation willingly to people. This is supposed to keep them out of court more often because they are already getting money. However, this is not the case. It seems that those who receive aid are more willing to go to court to get more money. One doctor noted that “there is no gratitude effect” (Olson 303). Another promising idea is that of mediation. It has several advantages over court-filed suits. Not only does it tend to expedite things more quickly, but the results are often more reliable. Also, things tend to be less”messy” in the proceedings. This is especially attractive to divorce suits, “ongoing employment cases, and other cases where mending a frayed relationship can be good” (Olson 303). Still, some flaws exist with this program. First, this mediation basically skips the trial part of the suit and goes right to the settlement. This settlement is the part the lawyers like the most, especially those out of court, because they have the most control. Also, lawyers are eager to discredit mediation because of the added cost of a mediator to the already costly trial. It seems that mediation is too routine for those filing lawsuits today. They are seeking big name recognition with large amounts of money, something they do not get from mediation. Still another proposed solution is the no-fault system. This system has several major pro and con points. One good aspect is the turnaround time. Money comes directly from the insurance company with no court battle. The major negative aspect is that these no-fault laws have a huge number of loopholes, allowing lawyers to attempt to get more cash for their clients. “There is, in short, no easy way to avoid the task of bringing sense back to our legal system. Litigation must be reformed from within, by rolling back the powers of imposition that makes it so fearful” (Olson 313). Change is a daunting task, but one that demands attention.
Therefore, the civil justice system truly needs reform. Frivolous lawsuits must be done away with. Countless examples exist that show how these lawsuits tie up the system and prevent growth and innovation. Many solutions exist, but most of those solutions have serious drawbacks. Then what can be done? Well, several states have put limits on the size of “noneconomic and punitive damages” (Adams). They also eliminated the ability of joint and several liability lawsuits, which allow lawyers to get money from those with the deepest pockets. Even with its drawbacks, mediation has a 90% success rate. Nevertheless, the laws need changing! Even though the efforts of just one or two will not make much a difference, that of one thousand will! Grass-roots organizations are also becoming popular for those looking to make change. Another avenue to pursue is through Congress and its representatives. Talking to the ones in power usually does the most good. It is up to us to push for this reform. Lawyers are happy collecting the money that they are presently. It is up to everyone else to fight for what is right!
Adams, Susan. “Assault on tort reform.” Forbes 11 Aug. 1997: 47.
Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA). .
Olson, Walter K. The Litigation Explosion: What Happened When America Unleashed the Lawsuit. New York: Truman Talley Books, 1991.
Pollock, Robert. “Tort reformers.” Reason Oct. 1994: 17.
Pretzer, Michael. “Will Congress buy the economic argument for tort reform?” Medical Economics 8 Sept. 1997: 43-46.
Wojcik, Joanne. “Bill would cut building suits.” Business Insurance 15 Sept. 1997: 2-3.