The media are demanding a lot of answers from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie these days. But, at least one important question that increasingly affects many New Jerseyians is not being asked, and that is about tort reform. New Jersey has become a haven for ambulance chasers and even out-of-state hopefuls pining for a payout from its “litigation lottery” system. Gov. Christie needs to answer why, after a popular first term and a resounding reelection victory, has there been no legislative movement to reform the Garden State’s tort system.
The Governor campaigned on this issue in 2009, and brought it up on his own accord two years later when asked about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential prospects.
"But I haven't spent a lot of time looking at his record. Now that he's getting in the race I'm sure we'll all have plenty of opportunity to study it,” he said at the time. “I would say he has done some good work in the area of tort reform, which is something we have to take a look at it New Jersey."
Nevertheless, he squandered his opportunity throughout his first term. He’s been given four more years to fix New Jersey’s broken system. And, he doesn’t have a moment to waste; New Jersey’s overall lawsuit climate has not changed since Christie took office, clocking in at 32nd in both 2010 and 2012. There are 47 lawsuits for every 10,000 of New Jersey’s citizens, significantly outpacing neighbors New York (30 per 10,000) and Pennsylvania (13 per 10,000).
Marcus Rayner, executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, notes that local governments are saddled with $350 million in litigation costs annually. Liability claims per 100 residents have steadily risen since Christie was first elected in 2009. That figure increased from $541 to $791 in the first year of his term alone.
Worst of all, this drain on resources and taxpayer dollars often comes at the hands of out-of-state plaintiffs who see the New Jersey tort system as ripe for the fleecing. Over ninety percent of pharmaceutical mass torts plaintiffs in New Jersey aren’t even from the state. That’s because the barrier for entry to offering “expert” testimony is virtually non-existent. Testimony that would never be taken seriously in a federal court is commonplace in New Jersey.
Rayner notes the influx of out of state torts lessen “predictability when it comes to how a trial judge will screen expert evidence,” and that “much of this disparity is simply not reviewable.”
Unfortunately, in the face of such “litigation tourism,” Governor Christie has abdicated his responsibility and abandoned his campaign pledge to reform it all – perhaps because of his chummy and mutually beneficial relationship with New Jersey’s legal community, whose members have aggressively opposed tort reform. At a town hall meeting last year, he declared reform a lost cause, saying he doubted “you’ll ever see significant tort reform.”
But an aggressive tort reform push in his second term would be terrific politics for Christie. A concentrated legislative agenda on a major issue like this would focus the scandal-hungry media’s attention on policy.
This issue has significant political implications for Mr. Christie as he considers his political future. Considered a Northeast moderate, Gov. Christie is unlikely to gain much of a following among the social conservatives in the Republican Party. Much of his support would likely come from business interests, a powerful Republican constituency. But business leaders are already privately expressing concern about his failure to aggressively combat his state’s overly litigious climate.
It’s past time to curtail the excess lawsuits in New Jersey.