There is a lot of noise around the concept of “Tort Reform”. But what is tort reform, really? Those who advocate for tort reform use the concept of limiting frivolous lawsuits and protecting medical providers from high insurance premiums, among other things. However, what tort reformers want is to limit a plaintiff’s access to the legal system and both make recovery more difficult and limit the amount an injured person can recover. By limiting access to legal recourse for injury, and the amount of damages recoverable, “tort reform” risks leaving seriously injured plaintiffs who face a lifetime of difficulties resulting from the negligence or other wrongdoing of a defendant individual or company unable to recover sufficient damages to offset the impact of their injuries.
With some exceptions, the champions of tort reform tend to be in the Republican Party, and tort reform is an extension of that parties pro-business platform. Limiting lawsuits against businesses and limiting recovery is a means of protecting the Republican base. Further, many if not most plaintiffs attorneys are Democrats, and limiting recovery, also limits the amount those Democratic attorney earn, which in turn limits the amount of money they can contribute to support the Democratic party and candidates. Not only does tort reform limit plaintiffs from making a meaningful recovery to offset serious injuries, but it is a political tool used to limit the Democratic party.
One of the ways that reformers push for tort reform is by capping or eliminating punitive damages. Punitive damages are those damages that are intended to punish a company for egregious misconduct that goes far beyond simple negligence, including willful or even intentional acts or practices that predictably lead to injuries or death. Punitive damages are a way of discouraging that type of conduct. By capping or eliminating punitive damages, in some cases the simple economics of certain practices are such that companies have no real disincentive to change their behavior or practices even where people are getting seriously injured or even killed.
When you hear people advocating tort reform, remember, that the goal is not really to limit frivolous lawsuits (there are mechanisms in the legal system already set up to address this), rather, the goal is to limit the amount that companies have to pay out to people injured or killed by their negligence or worse. By protecting the wrongdoers and limiting people’s access to the courts, tort reformers seek to deny people their day in court. For more information on the arguments against tort reform, there is an excellent documentary called Hot Coffee, which can be accessed here: http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com/.