Taxes are a major topic of debate in Washington right now. Faced with a massive federal deficit, some politicians have proposed raising taxes on individuals and businesses, despite the obvious negative effects of tax increases on economic growth and job creation. Yet at the same time, some in Washington are actually considering the creation of a new special interest tax break that will hurt economic growth, increase the deficit and fuel increased civil litigation.
The plaintiffs' bar and its allies in Congress and the administration are pushing for the adoption of a nearly $1.6 billion tax deduction for trial lawyers who take contingency fee cases. This proposed deduction would essentially provide a U.S. government subsidy to plaintiffs' lawyers to increase the number of frivolous lawsuits.
For several years, the plaintiffs' bar has been attempting to push this proposed tax break through Congress. With Congress so far unwilling to act, plaintiffs' lawyers have decided on a new approach and are now aggressively lobbying the Treasury Department to bypass Congress and create the deduction through administrative action.
The tax deduction would impose direct costs on the federal government and American taxpayers. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this trial lawyer subsidy would cost nearly $1.6 billion over ten years, all during a time of record federal deficits.
But these direct costs represent just a fraction of the proposal's potential damage. The contingency fee tax break would, in effect, subsidize ever more costly, frivolous litigation against American businesses. By some estimates, the tax deduction could subsidize as much as 40 percent of the initial plaintiffs' expenses for certain cases. With the federal government paying for such a large percentage of the up-front costs of lawsuits, plaintiffs' lawyers will be emboldened to take on the most speculative and frivolous litigation.
And in these troubled economic times, the last thing America needs is more frivolous lawsuits. As a percentage of gross domestic product, the United States spends more than twice as much on litigation as any other industrialized nation, a cost that reached $254.7 billion in 2008 according to a report by Towers Perrin.
Lisa A. Rickard serves as president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), where she provides strategic leadership to ILR's comprehensive program aimed at changing the legal culture that has resulted in our nation's litigation explosion.