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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of February 26 - March 4, 2003

Opinion Columns

Wrong reform
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 cause litigation.

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?


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.