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The Truth About the Civil Justice System

Supporters of so-called tort ‘reform’ bills in Congress claim that too many lawsuits have led to excessive costs and delays. They also charge that juries can no longer be trusted to render fair verdicts. But the truth belies these assertions. Tort ‘reform’ — really ‘deform’ — would gut our system’s ability to force wrongdoers to change their harmful conduct. For the whole story, check out the facts below:

Tort claims do not clog our courts. In fact, such claims accounted for only about 5 percent of all civil claims filed in state courts in 1992, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan National Center for State Courts (NCSC).(1)
ÔøΩ Tort filings in state courts declined between 1989 and 1998, according to an NCSC study of tort filings in 28 states — by 1%. This is particularly significant because over 95 percent of all tort cases are filed in state courts and states’ populations increased between 1989 and 1998. In a study of 16 states, NCSC found that the number of tort filings decreased 16% between 1996 and 1998.(2)
ÔøΩ Richard Turbin, head of the American Bar Association’s Tort and Insurance Practice section, a group which includes plaintiff and defense lawyers, says that the rate of federal lawsuits per capita has not changed since 1790 and that contract claims are responsible for clogging the courts. Mr. Turbin also notes that plaintiffs have steadily won 30 to 40 percent of cases and that the size of awards has increased due to natural inflation only.(3)
ÔøΩ Tort system costs pale in comparison to costs associated with injury. A Rand study estimated that medical spending for the treatment of injuries cost the U.S. economy nearly $154 billion in 1997 (about 20% of the nation’s health care bill) and that lost work time adds another $100 billion.(4) The National Safety Council estimates that accident costs totaled $480.5 billion in 1998.(5)
ÔøΩ About 6,000 deaths and millions of injuries are prevented each year because of the deterrent effect of products liability, according to the Consumer Federation of America.(6)
ÔøΩ When juries speak, corporate America listens. That’s why: Defectively designed cribs no longer strangle infants.(7) Flammable children’s pajamas have been taken off the market.(8) Once-harmful medical devices have been redesigned.(9) Auto fuel systems have been strengthened.(10) Cancer-causing asbestos no longer poisons homes, schools and work places.(11) And farm machinery has safety guards.(12)
Given the facts, why do opponents of civil justice blame tort cases for clogging our courts and driving up costs? Tort ‘reform’ limits the rights of individuals to hold wrongdoers accountable, while allowing corporate wrongdoers to hide from accountability.
1.National Center for State Courts, Examining the Work of State Courts, 1994 (1996)
2.National Center For State Courts, Examining the Work of State Courts, 1998 (1999)
3.Frank J. Murray, ‘Jackpot justice’ gets best defense, Wash. Times, July 17, 2000, at A1
4.M. Susan Marquis & Willard G. Manning, Lifetime Costs and Compensation for Injury, Inquiry, Oct. 1, 1999, at 244
5.National Safety Council, Costs of Unintentional Injuries by Class, 1998, (visited June 23, 2000)
6.See Hildy Bowbeer, Todd A. Cavanaugh, & Larry S. Stewart, Timmy Tumble v. Cascade Bicycle Co.: A Hypothetical Case Under the Restatement (Third) Standard for Design Defect, 30 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 511, 544 (citing Product Liability Reform: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Consumers of the Senate Comm. on Commerce, Science & Transp., 100th Cong. 54 (Sept. 18, 1987) (testimony of Gene Kimmelman, Legislative Director, Consumer Federation of America))
7.See Jon Burstein, Hit by Tragedy, Couple Work for Crib-Safety Bill, The Arizona Daily Star, Feb. 26, 1999, at 1B; Angela Curry, Coaster Company Settles Lawsuit Over Two Models of Baby Cribs, The Kansas City Star, Mar. 26, 1998, at E8
8.See Gryc v. Dayton Hudson Corp., 297 N.W.2d 727 (Minn. 1980)
9.See, e.g., Tetuan v. A.H. Robins Co., 738 P.2d 1210 (Kan. 1987) (dealing with dangers of Dalkon Shield)
10.See Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 174 Cal. Rptr. 328 (1981)
11.See Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Prods. Co., 493 F.2d 1076 (5th Cir. 1974)
12.See Friederichs v. Huebner, 329 N.W.2d 890, 906 (1983).