“Tort reform” is a familiar term for those who lived in California during the 2014 election cycle, but it is commonly misunderstood and misconstrued.
Tort Reform Explained
To put it simply, think of “tort” as the technical legal word for the body of law that addresses personal injuries. Under tort (i.e. the theory of law relevant to personal injury cases), someone who is injured by another person’s negligent conduct can recover financial compensation from the person who is legally responsible for the injury. Our legal system enables injured victims to file a civil lawsuit against the person or entity responsible, allowing them to recover the medical costs, lost income, and other expenses of a serious injury.
Simply put, when an injured person holds a person or corporation responsible in court for causing an injury, the negligent party’s insurance company pays the injured victim. Therefore, it is no surprise that insurance companies (and even the corporations that have caused serious injuries) take an active interest in decreasing these payouts—or preventing them altogether—as much as possible.
“Tort reform,” as it is so called, consists of caps on damage awards, which would prevent countless injured victims from receiving just compensation. For example, say there were a $1 million cap on compensatory damages in personal injury cases. A man is driving on the highway alongside a commercial truck driver, who falls asleep at the wheel and runs over the other driver, causing him to suffer permanent disability and preventing him from ever returning to work. The jury may decide the man’s injury—coupled with the truck driver’s negligence—entitled him to $3 million in compensation. However, according to the damage cap, the man could only receive $1 million, less than one-third of the estimated cost of his injury.
The Problem With the Term ‘Tort Reform’
The term “tort reform” is strategic in nature. Rather than calling it what it is (like “reduction of rightful damage awards” or “letting negligent parties off the hook easy”), proponents use the term “tort reform” to paint it in a much more positive light.
While it may have “reform” in the name, this is not reform in the sense that it fixes a badly broken system. Rather, it is a calculated effort by insurance companies and corporations to put the interests of profit above the interests of people who have been injured. The term “reform” makes it sound like we are operating in a runaway legal system where a burglar can win damages for tripping while breaking into a store—this is simply not the case. Framing the argument in this light is based on fear, disinformation, and fiction.
The Role of Attorneys
Personal injury attorneys exist to balance the scales between you and the opposing insurance company. Unlike insurance companies, which strictly operate to make a profit, an attorney’s first responsibility is to the client. This responsibility is not just a moral one, but a financial one; personal injury attorneys typically work on a contingency fee arrangement, meaning they will not receive payment until the case is successful. Under this arrangement, attorneys commit fully to personal injury cases they believe they can win and work tirelessly to ensure their clients receive compensation.
Proponents of “tort reform” will continue to paint attorneys as money-seeking individuals who over-exaggerate their clients’ claims to make a bigger profit, but at the end of the day, attorneys are the only ones with the average citizen in mind. Insurance companies are always out to make a bigger profit, and advocating arbitrary damage caps under the guise of “tort reform” is the next best way to do so.