Home » Tort reform

Category Archives: Tort reform

U.S. House Republicans again attempt tort deform measures

The House of Representatives has passed another so-called tort reform bill that would limit recovery of people harmed or kill by acts of malpractice. H.R. 5, the “Protecting Access to Healthcare Act” would impose a cap of $250,000 that would severely cut the damages of victims and make it far more difficult for such victims to secure contingency counsel. The bill passed 223 to 181 with seven Democrats joining Republicans to pass the bill. The bill is unlikely to be considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

If enacted, H.R. 5 would cap the nonecomomic damages that a plaintiff in a health care lawsuit could recover. It would also preempt existing state laws on proportionate liability, allow courts to reduce contingent fees, and abolish the collateral source rule. For over 200 years, the authority to determine these matters and other aspects of medical liability law has rested with the states. For some reason, Republicans want to ignore 200 years of history, ignore state’s rights, and curtail the rights of ordinary citizens to seek complete justice.

We have written frequently about other misguided tort reform efforts in the United States. Click here to see our previous posts. A 2011 film called Hot Coffee puts faces on the rights at stake, and details the impact of caps and other tort deform efforts. It is a must see for anyone concerned about civil justice. You can view our post about the movie by clicking here.

We urge you to call your U.S. Senator and urge him/her to reject this misguided attempt to strip us of our rights, and leave tort law to the states.

U.S. Chamber’s hypocrisy exposed

As the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) holds its annual summit – a strategy session on eliminating Americans’ access to the civil justice system – a new report exposes ILR’s corporate board members that hypocritically use the courts for their own gain against competitors, customers and even each other.

In its newest report, Do As I Say, Not As I Sue, the American Association for Justice (AAJ) exposes the hypocrisy of 10 ILR board members that regularly use the legal system to advance their own agendas, while at the same time advocating legislation that would close the courthouse doors to anyone who would hold them accountable for their own wrongdoing.

“These corporations, like all Americans, have a right to seek justice through the legal system,” said AAJ President Gary M. Paul. “What makes their actions shameful and hypocritical is that these companies are members of ILR’s board for the sole purpose of denying American workers and consumers this same right.”

One ILR board member highlighted in the report is Honeywell International, which has regularly taken competitors to court, but would prefer not to be held accountable for distributing defective body armor to law enforcement personnel across the country, or downplaying the dangers of asbestos exposure.

In return for its financial contributions to ILR, Honeywell has received policy and public relations help when its negligence has been uncovered.  Four days after an Illinois jury delivered a multi-million dollar verdict against Honeywell for conspiring to hide the dangers of asbestos, ILR issued a press release stating that the decision “confirms a troubling trend in the State of Illinois where there is a hostile ligation environment.” Additionally, the Madison County Record, an Illinois-based propaganda-as-news outlet fully owned by ILR, featured an article headlined, “McLean County Continues Inching Closer to Becoming a ‘Judicial Hellhole.'”

The irony does not stop with Honeywell – AAJ’s report also highlights the litigation hypocrisy of ILR board members FedEx, Dow Chemical Company, General Motors Corporation, Caterpillar, State Farm, Koch Industries, Abbott Laboratories, Prudential and Johnson & Johnson.

Online ads will run this week on major news sites and blogs to promote the report, Do As I Say, Not As I Sue: Exposing the Lawsuit-Happy Hypocrites of U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, which can be found at www.justice.org/USChamber. You can vie the written report by clicking here.

Civil justice in the age of new media

A new study released today by the national consumer rights organization, Center for Justice & Democracy, finds that news coverage of civil jury verdicts fails to provide an accurate picture of the civil justice system and that certain new media trends are making the situation worse. The study, “Headline Blues: Civil Justice In The Age Of New Media,” follows up on CJ&D’s January 2001 study, Reading Between the Headlines: The Media and Jury Verdicts. That report found the media’s coverage of verdicts to be deeply skewed, fueling common misperceptions that civil juries routinely award plaintiffs eye-popping verdicts for frivolous claims. Headline Blues finds this still to be true but certain new trends are producing even more distorted reporting.

According to CJ&D’s Executive Director Joanne Doroshow, “What people are learning about civil jury verdicts is becoming more and more skewed due to a number of factors. Digital news aggregators like Google and social media like Facebook and Twitter function by communicating only the briefest set of words and often just headlines. These headlines commonly emphasize large monetary awards, which do not reflect typical verdicts, and rarely note the misconduct that led to the verdict in the first place.”

“No matter how someone gets their news, whether from a local TV anchor, an online newspaper or blog, a car radio or a Twitter feed, most initial stories are still being written by journalists and editors at news organizations,” said Doroshow. “However, accuracy in reporting is often not receiving the attention it should. For example, we found that a verdict subject to state law that automatically ‘caps’ damages regardless of what a jury awards, is clearly something about which readers should be told. Yet from our analysis, this is not being done, or at least not being done clearly and responsibly.

“The economic pressures facing shrinking newsrooms, combined with the accelerating speed at which news must be produced, means that the public is being exposed to an overwhelming amount of brief, sensationalized and often incomplete coverage of civil jury verdicts. This is harming the public discourse about the civil justice system and preventing everyday people from understanding how important this system is to them in their daily lives.”

A copy of the full study can be found here.

Consumer group debunks myths about punitive damages

In a new White Paper released today entitled WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT… PUNITIVE DAMAGES, the national nonprofit consumer group Center for Justice & Democracy “examines the truth about punitive damages” and argues that “the imposition or threat of punitive damages is so critical in the fight against reckless corporate behavior that any effort to restrict them undermines the safety of us all.”

According to the Center for Justice & Democracy’s Executive Director, Joanne Doroshow, “Punitive damages, which are awarded by juries to stop egregious wrongdoing, are one of the least understood features of the civil justice system. Conservative free-market economists have written that punitive damages help deter non-cost-justified misconduct so they are essential to a fair, safe and efficient society. We found that contrary to conventional wisdom, punitive damages are extremely rare. Their social importance lies not in their frequency, but in signaling to big companies that the financial consequences of acting recklessly can be severe.”

According to author Emily Gottlieb, Deputy Director for Law and Policy at the Center for Justice & Democracy, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT… PUNITIVE DAMAGES debunks many common myths about punitive damages and “shows how punitive damages, either actual or potential, factor into corporate decision making about product safety.” Among the report’s findings are:

Punitive damages are rarely sought and rarely awarded (5 percent of civil cases, 3 percent of tort cases with plaintiff winners). Most punitive damage awards are quite modest ($64,000 median in civil cases; $55,000 median in tort cases).

History shows that the imposition or threat of punitive damages has caused corporations to take dangerous products and services off the market and operate more safely. Manufacturers support caps on punitive damages because caps allow them to precisely budget their potential liability as a cost of doing business. However, if it becomes cost-effective for companies to simply pay victims and their families for deaths or injuries rather than fix the problem, the essential function of punitive damages to deter unsafe corporate conduct is undermined.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court has been placing arbitrary limits on punitive damages remedies. Moreover, in addition, 38 states have passed laws that impede consumers’ ability to seek punitive remedies. Legislative restrictions include: 1) outright bans on punitive damages; 2) damages caps; 3) mandatory apportionment of punitives to state funds; 4) heightened burdens of proof; and 5) bifurcated trials.

Congress is considering federal legislation – H.R. 5 – that would make it virtually impossible for medical malpractice and drug injury victims to obtain punitive damages from doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers, and would impose these federal limits in every state, overturning state law.

Many who have pushed for restrictions on consumers’ ability to seek punitive damages, including major companies pushing for caps on damages and other liability limits, do not hesitate to demand punitive damages when they feel their own interests have been compromised.

Federal and state tax laws generally allow corporations to deduct punitive damages payments. Allowing companies to deduct punitives as “ordinary and necessary business expenses” effectively rewards and subsidizes grossly irresponsible or intentional behavior, undermining their purpose to deter egregious misconduct.

Writes author Emily Gottlieb, “The availability of punitive damages protects us all by holding wrongdoers accountable for egregious misconduct and deterring its future occurrence. Laws that restrict punitive awards place the public at serious risk, and lawmakers should not be misled by falsehoods spread by corporate special interests about this most valuable and important feature of our civil justice system.”

The full study can be found here.

Hot Coffee movie premieres on HBO

Seinfeld mocked it. Letterman ranked it in his top ten list. And more than fifteen years later, its infamy continues. Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts?

Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end. The movie premieres on HBO this month. The HBO preview can be viewed by clicking the image below.

For more information on show times on HBO, click here.

We have written frequently about misguided tort reform efforts in the United States. Click here to see our previous posts. This film puts faces on the controversy and is a must see for anyone concerned about civil justice. You are urged to spend 86 minutes watching this film. The official film trailer can be viewed by clicking the image below.

Report details hypocrisy of Chamber of Commerce

The American Association of Justice has released a new report which exposes the Chamber of Commerce as one of the most aggressive litigators in Washington and details the Chamber’s hypocrisy. Underwritten by its multinational corporate members, the Chamber spends millions of dollars to undermine the civil justice system, prevents Americans from holding wrongdoers accountable in the courtroom, and advances the agenda of its corporate membership.

Earlier this month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue called litigation “one of our most powerful tools for making sure that federal agencies follow the law and are held accountable.” Yet ironically, the Chamber today holds its annual Legal Reform Summit – an event underwritten by its multinational corporate members that promotes undermining the civil justice system to weaken the basic legal protections of American workers and consumers.

The Chamber’s hypocrisy – blocking justice for everyday Americans while using the courts liberally for its own pro-corporate agenda – is the subject of the report that exposes the Chamber as one of the most aggressive litigators in Washington, entering lawsuits at a rate of over twice weekly.

“The Chamber’s ‘one rule for corporations, another rule for everybody else’ motto has come at the expense of ill-treated workers, defrauded investors and injured consumers,” said AAJ President Gibson Vance. “It readily spends millions of dollars to prevent Americans from holding wrongdoers accountable in the courtroom, and then aggressively uses the very same legal system to advance the agenda of its multinational corporate membership.”

In almost every case, the Chamber’s litigation on behalf of corporations has come at the expense of Americans’ health or financial security. The Chamber has:

  • justified the actions of Wall Street banks that drove the country’s economy into turmoil;
  • defended the most conceited and worst behaved CEOs and their most extravagant excesses;
  • tried to force workers, instead of employers, to pay for their own safety equipment;
  • filed numerous actions opposing any move to combat climate change;
  • sought to shield pharmaceutical executives who skirted safety procedures that ultimately killed 11 children;
  • opposed measures allowing workers to receive a rest period during a full work day;
  • fought on behalf of lead paint manufacturers found to have poisoned thousands of children;
  • defended corporations that discriminated on the basis of race and disability;
  • and spent years defending big tobacco, asbestos companies and chemical companies found to have contaminated water and air.

“The Chamber has every right to seek what it believes to be justice in a court of law, even if representing the most deplorable corporate interests,” said Vance. “But it must learn that this right to justice belongs not just to their organization, or big business generally, but to all Americans.”

The report, entitled The Chamber Litigation Machine: How the Chamber Uses Lawsuits to Keep Americans Out of Court, can be found by clicking here.

Tragedies highlight need for strong civil justice system

Headlines from the last month: runaway cars, a mine collapse, an exploding oil rig and a financial institution shepherding the collapse of America’s economy.

It has been a daily occurrence to see the news dominated by the latest example of corporate misconduct. Each saga follows the same pattern: Tragedy occurs, followed by apologies tempered by denials and claims of innocence, and evidence that profits were knowingly put ahead of the safety and well-being of the American people.

In an op-ed in Roll Call, Linda Lipsen wrote, “It has been a daily occurrence to see the news dominated by the latest example of corporate misconduct.” At the same time, “we have also seen how federal agencies lack the resources to adequately protect and safeguard the American people.” Only “after tragic accidents do we closely analyze the agencies and systems that failed, and what must be corrected.

Every time we do so, there is only one institution that consistently protects consumers and holds wrongdoers accountable: America’s civil justice system.” Yet “once these scandals fade away, it will be telling to see whether some lawmakers continue with their fixation on ‘tort reform’ – or handing out immunity to the very same corporations responsible for injuring consumers in the first place.”

Litigation has not only advanced public safety, but has encouraged improvement in products almost too numerous to mention: air bags, seat belts, child safety seats, tires, minivan doors, hot water vaporizers, children’s pajamas, farm machinery, firearms, building materials, tobacco products, intra-uterine contraceptive devices, tampons, sleeping pills, anti-depressants, pain medication, appetite suppressants and many more. Toyota is just another sign of how much work remains to be done.

We only hope that politicians will keep this in mind the next time they are asked by lobbyists to rein in lawsuits.

You can read the complete text of the Lipson piece by clicking here.