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Tort Reform is a term that you may have seen in the news recently. The term “tort” is used to describe laws related to who is responsible when someone is injured. When we hear the term “reform”, we naturally think of something that is being changed for the better. Unfortunately, the term “tort reform” is being misused by certain industries including insurance companies, drug companies, asbestos companies, and medical associations as well as by certain politicians who receive contributions from these industries. When they tell us we need “tort reform” to protect us from “special interest groups”, what they are really saying is that when you are injured by their negligence, they look at you as part of a special interest group (made up of people injured by the carelessness of others) and they want to be protected from paying you fair compensation for the harm they have caused. In reality, those companies are the “special interest groups.” They are in business to make their executives and owners wealthy, so they try to avoid responsibility for their carelessness by not paying the people they injure.
You can find updated information on related issues at People Over Profits: Protecting Consumers Rights.
These powerful industries try to avoid responsibility for harm caused by their negligence in many ways. They contribute to political campaigns and hire lobbyists to convince our senators and representatives to enact laws that will limit what they have to pay for the harm that they have caused. For example, in 2005 they tried to get the U.S. Congress to prohibit lawsuits by people who had developed mesothelioma, a painful and deadly form of lung cancer that results from breathing asbestos dust. In exchange for taking away the right to sue, a “fund” was going to be set up to pay people injured by asbestos. This may have sounded like a good idea, but there was a serious problem with it. The problem was that the asbestos industry, its insurance companies and the politicians who look out for them decided how much money they would put into the “fund.” They decided that no matter how many people would become sick from asbestos, the amount of money in the fund would not increase. They basically tried to create a law that shifted the focus from what those companies should pay their victims to what the companies were willing to pay them. Most experts predicted that the fund would run out of money in a few years, leaving no money and no right to sue for people diagnosed with asbestos related disease after the fund ran out of money.
Another way that these powerful groups and the insurance industry try to avoid responsibility is to scare us as citizens and jurors into thinking that if we fairly compensate injured people in court, our own insurance rates will go up. In reality, insurance company profits are so high that they could easily afford to compensate people who are harmed, without increasing premiums. Real “tort reform” would prohibit insurance companies from raising premiums while they are reaping record profits. Insurance insiders are privately very pleased with the situation as it stands- and with good reason.
According to the September 15, 2003 issue of Business Insurance, 14 property/casualty insurance companies had a 35.9% increase in net income, to $7.5 billion, in the first half of 2003. The insurance industry would rather have us, as jurors and voters, turn against each other (and ourselves, if we happen to become injured), than have themselves make less profit. These same groups also try to convince us and our lawmakers that the courts are full of “frivolous” lawsuits that must be stopped by laws limiting how much money a jury can give to someone who is injured. What seems more logical is that when we serve as jurors, we hear the details of the injury and we are in the best position to determine what is fair compensation. Unfortunately, the insurance industry’s effort to protect its exorbitant profits with its false information campaign has been working. As consumers, voters and potential jurors it is important that we know the real facts. Insurance companies dictate how much or how little doctors and hospitals can get paid for their services and they try force people who have been injured to accept inadequate compensation, all the while making record profits and executive salaries. According to a survey reported in the March, 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, 69 percent of people surveyed blamed the high cost of health care on “frivolous lawsuits.” This is in spite of a 2004 study by the Congressional Budget Office which found that malpractice insurance premiums and court awards only account for less than 2 percent of overall health-care spending. Additionally, lawsuits such as medical negligence lawsuits are hardly “frivolous” as the insurance companies would have us believe. For example, in 2000, an article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the topic of medical mistakes. The Journal of the American Medical Association, which is the most widely circulated medical journal in the world, indicated that in the previous ten years, 225,000 Americans, per year, had died from complications of their medical treatment in hospitals. The deaths were from unnecessary surgery, medication errors, infections, negative effects from drugs and “other errors.” This means that America”s health-care-system-induced deaths were the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. health-care-reform.net.
Lawsuits decided by juries serve two purposes in these kinds of cases. They compensate people who have been injured by the carelessness of others and they make all of our lives safer by forcing unsafe products out of the marketplace and by forcing hospitals to improve their safety procedures. There is a reason surgical teams count the number of instruments on hand both before and after a surgery. It is because when they did not, mistakes happened, people were sent home with surgical equipment inside them, and then those people sued for damages. Now hospitals are more careful, and that is how the system is supposed to work.
I encourage you to tell your Massachusetts and U.S. senators and representatives if you feel that “tort reform” should protect the rights of people who may become injured instead of the rights of wealthy industries, insurance companies and CEOs who want to protect the huge profits they make from selling dangerous products or from carelessly performed procedures.
If you are not sure who your senators and representatives are or how to contact them, you can find out at: wheredoivotema.com.