for ‘tort reform’
Commentary by PAT MURPHY
While on a federal court jury in Florida
years ago, I saw the idiocy of litigation designed to shake down a big company.
Two women had sued the Greyhound bus
company after being tossed into a bus’s aisle when the driver ran off the road
to avoid a collision.
Greyhound attorneys produced records
showing the women had unsuccessfully sued several stores after claiming to have
slipped on floors.
The jury quickly exonerated Greyhound.
Greedy opportunists with fictional
injuries and their lawyers never give up. And therein lies a weakness in tort
law that could be remedied without resorting to the drastic nostrum of
arbitrarily limiting damages, as is being debated by Idaho legislators, as well
as in other states and Congress.
If judges discover that plaintiffs and
their attorneys are trying to shake down corporations with fraudulent claims,
they should recommend attorneys for disbarment or suspension for misconduct.
Ambulance-chasing law practices taking cases in exchange for as much as 50
percent of awards would soon shrivel.
Real negligence is a fact. Limiting cash
awards for suffering and loss of life or limbs would benefit insurance company
profits more than reduce insurance costs.
Politicians are being manipulated by
lobbyists who demonize "trial lawyers" and misleadingly exploit headlines about
absurd lawsuits and jury awards. In addition to being drastically reduced by
judges, many judgments that grab headlines are thrown out on appeal.
(Credit for President Bush’s interest in
tort reform goes to his political adviser, Karl Rove, who boasted to authors of
a new book, "Bush’s Brain," that he introduced it into Bush’s 1994 campaign for
Texas governor and while Rove was a consultant to the tobacco giant Philip
Morris. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, health care
professionals and insurers have given two-thirds of their $71 million in
contributions to Republicans in the past two years.)
If damages were arbitrarily limited, what
about compensation for families of more than 90 persons who died in the Rhode
Island nightclub inferno caused by perhaps illegal pyrotechnics and families of
21 who were trampled to death in a Chicago club a week earlier?
And what of 98,000 U.S. patients who
reportedly die each year because of medical errors (the botched heart-lung
transplant of Jesica Santillan is an example), and 150 reported cases since 1996
in which surgeons operated on the wrong body parts, not to mention the sorrowful
deaths and injuries caused by faulty Firestone tires?
The pharmaceutical giant Bayer even now
faces major negligence lawsuits from patients suing over the anti-cholesterol
drug Baycol, which caused at least 100 deaths and 1,600 illnesses worldwide and
which senior executives knew was risky. Some 400 of the suits have been settled,
some for $1.2 million each.
Like judges who’re reluctant to banish
lawyers from practice, medicine stubbornly resists ostracizing incompetents who
Until professions rid their ranks of
negligent practitioners, why should victims of their injurious carelessness
limit their rights to fair compensation for suffering and loss?