Editor's Note: This post was authored by Christian Watson.
Americans rarely agree on political matters. Polarization has, unfortunately, infected seemingly every facet of American life. But one issue has historically drawn broad consensus across the political spectrum: The need to iron out serious holes in America’s notoriously abused tort system.
We don’t know when it’ll be, but once this is all over, there will likely be a deluge of frivolous claims (for instance, if a customer contracts coronavirus and blames the business or restaurant they visited for it), which would strain our already-bloated legal system and leave cash-strapped businesses to the wolves. That’s why, on Tuesday, April 28, Mitch McConnell said that the latest coronavirus relief bill would not get his blessing without guaranteeing economically-vulnerable businesses protection from frivolous lawsuits that might come once relief funds are dispersed.
Hallelujah! The promised land is in sight.
Sadly, McConnell’s proposal, while a good first step, is solely confined to COVID-19 related claims. But tort-reform was needed long before the novel coronavirus hit America’s shores, and temporary fixes can’t replace the need for permanent reform to our country’s broken litigation system.
For instance, in 2019 alone, the cost of medical malpractice lawsuits increased by 2.18 percent from the previous year, resulting in a whopping $4 billion payout. When most people hear the word “malpractice,” they probably picture a not-so pleasant looking M.D., doing his or her job with reckless negligence or perhaps even malevolence. Indeed, while legitimate medical malpractice should be stopped, frivolous lawsuits are enabled by the existing legal regime. A 2016 study from St. Luke University found that, in some cases, the general legal system allows frivolous claims to slip through by laying a hefty burden of proof on the physician when or if they pursue a countersuit. This complicates a physician’s ability to countersue, providing opportunistic plaintiffs a blank check to sue to their heart’s content.
When Texas tightened its legal system, however, the results were striking: A study from the University of Texas found that after the Lone Star State passed tort reform, the number of tort claims declined precipitously. And in 2016, a study by the American Action Forum (AAF) found “statistically significant evidence that medical tort reform is associated with a decrease in health care costs.” In fact, AAF estimated that tort reform could save healthcare consumers $15 billion in insurance premiums. It’s clear that overall tort reform reduces the risk of unnecessary strain being applied to the medical industry.
Even beyond the plight of medical professionals, there are serious flaws in the structure of the tort system. Right now, bad criteria are allowing trigger-happy claims in the first place. People know that almost anyone can file a lawsuit for any reason, even if it has no legs in court. In 2018, a federal district court judge had to burn time penning a 148-page opinion that slapped two Florida law firms with a $9.1 million fine for filing junk claims — it had filed over 1,000 false claims in 3,700 different lawsuits.
It’s not just well-heeled lawyers behaving recklessly, either. In 2014, a class-action lawsuit rewarded fake consumer dissatisfaction by permitting disaffected Red Bull users to claim 10 dollars because the energy drink “didn’t give them wings,” as advertised in the slogan.
The point remains: The system’s structure solicits abuse by being so easy to misuse. In a sense, we all lose.
Now is a good time to change this — for good. Let’s start by establishing clear-cut criteria for who has standing to sue (to avoid another Red Bull scenario), reprimanding individuals who make silly claims, and by ensuring that the plaintiff — not the defendant — shoulders the burden of proof for their own claims. Sometimes, just a smidgeon of common sense goes a long way.
Christian Watson is a political writer based out of Georgia and a Young Voices Advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @OfficialCWatson.