Consumers are true victims of tort reform

March 06, 1998|By Howard A. Janet

RECENT news accounts have revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- Washington's largest business lobbying group -- and national Republican Party leaders are about to declare war on trial lawyers.

An integral part of the chamber's battle plan is a multimillion-dollar, negative advertising blitz. The GOP leadership plans to launch its own attack. According to a reported Republican source, "We'll unleash an attack on the trial lawyers never seen before."

Speaker Newt Gingrich has already informed GOP leaders that attacking trial lawyers is a top priority this election year.

What do the chamber and its ally hope to gain by elevating lawyer-bashing to new heights? Ultimately, they hope their tactics will lead to more so called tort reform.

Trial lawyers are the declared target and would bear the brunt of strategic air-wave strikes. But if further anti-consumer legislation is passed, it would be consumers who suffered most.

Secondary targets

Consumers of everything from hazardous toys to substandard managed health care are the clandestine targets in the sights of these overzealous pro-business groups. But attacking the rights of consumers head-on obviously frightens chamber and GOP strategists. So instead, they will go after the lawyers who represent consumers.

Past campaigns to dismember the U.S. civil justice system relied on unfounded charges that personal injury and wrongful-death actions clog our courts and hurt the economy. Such allegations continue to lack merit but undoubtedly will surface again.

While the chamber and national GOP leadership will cite anecdotal cases to support claims of tort litigation abuse and will rail about adverse effects of product liability litigation on the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, in reality:

Tort claims account for less than 10 percent of all civil court filings, but approximately half of all lawsuits are filed by businesses, according to a recent report of the National Center for State Courts.

In many states, including Maryland, frivolous medical malpractice claims are virtually nonexistent because the plaintiff must file a certificate from a qualified physician attesting to the validity of the claims.

The Consumer Federation of America reports that the cost to consumers for product liability is merely one-fourth of one penny per dollar of purchase price.

U.S. business insurance costs declined annually between 1993 and 1996, and dropped more than 12 percent in 1996, according to a 1997 Risk and Insurance Management Society survey.

As for the U.S. economy, it is stronger than ever. Inflation and unemployment are low, and many corporations are making record profits.

Despite assertions that will be made to the contrary, trial lawyers perform many important functions in our society -- not the least of which is encouraging safety. Due in great part to their efforts, exploding motor vehicles have been redesigned, unsafe medical devices have been pulled from the market or redesigned, flammable children's pajamas have been discontinued, and hospitals have created patient advocate and quality assurance departments.

Unfair 'reforms'

As a result of previous heavily financed big business and insurance industry initiatives, "tort reform" already has gone too far. Examples of excessive "reforms" include a Maryland law that unfairly limits the damages recoverable for pain and suffering in all tort cases, and another that unreasonably shortens the statue of limitations for medical negligence.

Further "tort reform" should be out of the question. No amount of smear tactics against the nation's trial lawyers should convince the public or our elected representatives otherwise.

Howard A. Janet, a malpractice lawyer, is a member of the board of governors of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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