It’s not news that countless bogus lawsuits are filed in this country every year. What’s less well known is that because of obscure procedural rules, even the most self-evidently absurd lawsuits typically cost blameless defendants plenty of money, time, and anguish before any judge even considers whether to throw them out. Take the angry man who sued a Washington, D.C. cleaner for $67 million in 2007 for allegedly losing a pair of his pants. The damage claim was obviously absurd. In a sensible system the judge would have tossed it out without dragging the cleaner into court or forcing him […]
It’s no secret that America’s public schools, health care system, and lawsuit industry — among other institutions — are broken. After decades of alarming reports and reform efforts, they still cost far more, and with worse results, than those of almost all other developed countries. And President-elect Obama’s hope of changing things dramatically for the better faces an uphill battle.
A big part of the reason, New York City lawyer-author-civic leader Philip Howard writes in a forthcoming book, Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law, is that our institutions and their leaders are paralyzed by tangles of legal rules and diverted "from doing what we think is right" by fear of being unfairly hauled into court.
"We will never fix our schools, or make health care affordable, or re-energize democracy, or revive the can-do spirit that made America great," Howard writes, "unless American law is rebuilt to protect freedom in our daily choices." By this he means freeing ourselves from "the confusion of good judgment with legal proof."
"Washington is paralyzed," writes Philip Howard, by "decades of accumulated law, beyond the influence of anyone except special interests."
Reprising the themes of Howard’s best-selling Death of Common Sense in 1995, Life Without Lawyers also proposes some far-reaching remedies, designed in part to affirmatively define and protect the freedom of people in positions of authority to fulfill their responsibilities in their own way. To be published on January 12, its 191 pages are crammed with telling cases, anecdotes, and data. It brims with insights into how "rights" that were created to prevent "unfairness by those in authority" are now "guaranteeing unfairness to the common good."
Now and then events converge to remind us of how often plaintiffs’ lawyers pervert our lawsuit industry for personal and political gain, under the indulgent eyes of judges, without rectifying any injustices, at the expense of the rest of us.
We have recently witnessed the spectacle of three of the nation’s richest and most famous plaintiffs’ lawyers heading to federal prison for various criminal frauds. More on them later. First, let’s consider an especially egregious case that the Supreme Court allowed on May 12, for lack of a quorum, to move ahead in lower federal courts. These consolidated lawsuits, which are seeking more than $400 billion from companies that did business in South Africa during apartheid, score high on what I call Taylor’s Index of Completely Worthless Lawsuit Indicators:
• The lawsuits will do victims of wrongdoing little or no good.
• They will penalize no human being who has done anything wrong.
• They will deter more conduct that is beneficial than harmful.
• The legal costs and any damages will come at the expense of the general public.
• The lawsuits therefore serve no purpose at all but to enrich lawyers and provide ideological power trips for some judges as well as lawyers.
A weakly reasoned federal Appeals Court decision in the apartheid case has the additional defects of thumbing its nose at the Supreme Court and insulting the current, democratically elected government of South Africa, which is led by victims of apartheid.
American Isuzu Motors v. Ntsebeza is a class action purporting to represent all of the more than 20 million black South Africans who were held down by the brutal apartheid regime between 1948 and 1994. The claimed $400 billion would come from more than 50 of the big American and multinational companies that usually end up in the dock when plaintiffs’ attorneys are looking for deep pockets to pick.
"Tort reform" is a dreary phrase for what could be a noble and exciting endeavor. It could be about fixing our system of justice so that more victims maimed by reckless conduct will get the compensation they need, when they need it; so that fewer good doctors and good companies will get soaked for misfortunes that weren’t their fault; so that the insurance premiums and prices we all pay will no longer be inflated by legal waste, fraud, and abuse.
"Asbestos litigation has become a malignant enterprise which mostly consists of a massive client-recruitment effort that accounts for as much as 90 percent of all claims currently being generated, supported by baseless medical evidence which is not generated by good-faith medical practice, but rather is primarily a function of the compensation paid, and by claimant testimony scripted by lawyers to identify exposure to certain defendants’ products."
The Rev. Ron Singleton’s door is always open. That way, when the Methodist minister of a small congregation in Inman, S.C., is counseling a parishioner, his secretary across the hall is a witness in case Singleton is accused of inappropriate behavior. (When his secretary is not around, the reverend does his counseling at the local Burger King.) Singleton has a policy of no hugging from the front; just a chaste arm around the shoulders from the side. And he’s developed a lame little hand pat to
The Rev. Ron Singleton’s door is always open. That way, when the Methodist minister of a small congregation in Inman, S.C., is counseling a parishioner, his secretary across the hall is a witness in case Singleton is accused of inappropriate behavior. (When his secretary is not around, the reverend does his counseling at the local Burger King.) Singleton has a policy of no hugging from the front; just a chaste arm around the shoulders from the side. And he’s developed a lame little hand pat to console the lost and the grieving. The dearth of hugging is "really sad," he says, but what is he going to do? He could ill afford a lawsuit.
Dr. Sandra R. Scott of Brooklyn, N.Y., has never been sued for malpractice, but that doesn’t keep her from worrying. As an emergency-room doctor, she often hears her patients threaten lawsuits–even while she’s treating them. "They’ll come in, having bumped their heads on the kitchen cabinet, and meanwhile I’ll be dealing with two car crashes," she says. "And if they don’t have the test they think they should have in a timely fashion, they’ll get very angry. All of a sudden, it’s ‘You’re not treating me, this hospital is horrible, I’m going to sue you’."
As tort reformers and trial lawyers resume their arcane battles, the costs of and damage done by our burgeoning lawsuit industry are mounting up, all around us. The total dollar amount awarded in the 100 largest jury verdicts in 2002 was more than three times the 2001 total, reports The National Law Journal. The direct costs to society from the tort liability system jumped by an inflation-adjusted 11 percent from 2000 to 2001, to $205 billion-"the equivalent of a 5 percent tax on wages"-according to a study released on February 11 by the actuarial firm Tillinghast-Towers Perrin (whose clients include most large insurers).
Two recent developments dramatize how lawyer-plutocrats continue to obscenely enrich themselves by using massive asbestos lawsuits and a disgracefully dysfunctional litigation system to extort billions of dollars from American consumers every year. The lawyers blackmail mostly blameless companies, while cheating the real victims of asbestos.
Teachers in Michigan’s public schools are prohibited by law from patting students on the back, lest someone shout "sexual harassment." But it is almost impossible to get an incompetent teacher, or a disruptive child, out of the classroom anywhere in the country. Bristol, Conn., like other towns, has removed the seesaws and merry-go-rounds from its playgrounds. Some kids find the new, certifiably safe playground equipment so boring that they make up games of crashing into it on their bicycles.
It was obvious to almost everybody after the twin towers came down that the foreseeable plague of lawsuits against the airline industry and the owners of the destroyed World Trade Center-as well as its architects, engineers, builders, insulation suppliers, and every other solvent company that had anything to do with the place, not to mention Boeing Co. and the City of New York-would be a repugnant spectacle.