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bittercritter's avatar

Can someone explain "tort reform" to me as simply as possible?

Asked by bittercritter (28 points ) January 19th, 2010

I don’t understand what tort reform, or just even just a “tort” for that matter. Why is it important? How does it affect me?

Wikipedia does not make it any clearer. Can someone please explain to me as they would to a 10 year old?

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35 Answers

marinelife's avatar

From Wikipedia:

“Tort reform refers to proposed changes in the civil justice system that would reduce tort litigation or damages. Tort is a system for compensating wrongs and harm done by one party to another’s person, property or other protected interests (e.g. reputation, under libel and slander laws). Tort reform advocates focus on personal injury in particular.

In the United States tort reform is a contentious political issue. US tort reform advocates propose, among other things, procedural limits on the ability to file claims, and capping the awards of damages. According to Forbes reporter Daniel Fisher, tort reform is “A catchall phrase for legislative measures designed to make it harder for individuals to sue businesses.”[1]”

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

From my understanding, it is limiting the amount that people can sue for damages.
If I choked on a piece of chocolate walnut torte in your restaurant,there would be a limit to what I could sue your @$$ for.Sue me if I am wrong ;))

wunday's avatar

Doctors and other groups claim there are a lot of frivolous lawsuits against them. (Torts are lawsuits). Doctors say these stupid lawsuits are driving up health care costs. They argue that if it were made more difficult to sue them, health care costs would go down. So they want the government to pass laws limiting lawsuits. This, of course, would limit justice for poor people. It also would not reduce health care costs, since lawsuits account for only 1% of all health spending.

Austinlad's avatar

Great answer, wundayatta. Not only do I now understand what tort reform is, I understand one reason it might not as good be as advertised.

Snarp's avatar

Tort reform is a buzzword used by conservatives. They want you to think they are going to get rid of frivolous lawsuits and excessive damages, but basically what it means is limiting the power of the courts. Essentially they want to take the decision of what is frivolous and what is excessive away from judges.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Torts, in case you haven’t yet looked up and comprehended the term, are civil lawsuits. That is, they are suits in law brought by one party against another and not involving criminal law. They involve suits for negligence, non-performance of contracts, divorces and any other type of disagreement you can imagine between individuals, companies, individuals and companies, and even any of those parties and government agencies (again, provided there is no criminal law violation alleged, in which case a government prosecutor makes it a criminal case).

One of the great things about the American legal system is that anyone has “equal access” to the court system, at least nominally. That word “nominally” is a problem. Anyone has the “access” to hire an attorney, but many attorneys know a losing suit when they see it and won’t take it without large retainer fees to cover their costs. Well-heeled parties to a suit whose primary aim is to, say, delay a construction project, for example, will have no problem paying for continuous strings of lawsuits in order to achieve their aims. The reason is that the construction developer often can’t obtain secure financing for the project until the suits are all settled. Maintain the suits and you eventually kill the project.

Other attorneys know that they can pay fairly minimal costs of their own to mount an attack against a company or individual with “deep pockets” (a lot of cash and value at stake) and even though not every suit will be successful, they approach it like a gambler: lose a lot of small battles for the chance to win one huge score. This was how a lot of the tobacco suits of the 1990s played out. Those suits had started in the 1960s and earlier; the winners eventually won billions. (And the winners are attorneys; the “victims” who set the suits in motion were generally dead or otherwise incapacitated and won only a fraction of the settlement amounts.)

Other times, fearing the possibility of jury trials that could go against them, sued companies—even when they truly feel the “rightness” of their stance or operation—settle with the suing attorneys just to avoid the possibility of unknown and uncontrollable huge losses. Sometimes this becomes a normal part of business: companies budget for a certain number of lawsuits that they know in advance they will settle and not fight more than nominally.

This is not to say that all attorneys are scumbags and ambulance-chasers—not even most of them. But it’s the nature of the game to be played the way it is. The attorneys mounting the suits in most cases only have to cover their own costs. “Tort reform” generally means that defenders of lawsuits want to be able to charge the unsuccessful attorneys (if they decided to fight the suits) with the costs of their defense of the suit. This would make plaintiff’s attorneys really take a sharp look at their likelihood of winning a suit before making it.

dpworkin's avatar

A Tort is a civil wrong as opposed to a criminal wrong. Torts are adjudicated in Civil Courts, and the sanctions are generally money damages.

Corporations hate big jury awards because they don’t like to be held responsible for the evils they perpetrate. They want to “reform” tort law to cap damages and restrict standing to sue.

Lawyers love big jury awards because they like to make a lot of money. They oppose tort reform because they know they can dupe a jury into awarding huge damages by showing them a deformed baby, even though it wasn’t the OB-GYN’s fault.

We need real Tort Reform, but both sides oppose it for selfish reasons.

Dominic's avatar

As briefly as is humanly possible:

In this context, a tort is an action that causes a personal injury. (Stabbing someone is both a crime and a tort.)

Tort reform is a slogan used by people who want to limit the maximum amount of money you can get from personal injury lawsuits. Again, in this context, it usually refers to a medical malpractice lawsuit, but sometimes products liability lawsuits (like toys that are choking hazards, and so on).

If you’re injured, tort reform could limit the amount of money you could get from the person responsible for hurting.

Janka's avatar

From outside of the US, from a country where there is a limit on monetary compensations, it does seem to me that the ridiculous risks one takes in medical practice in the States do drive up costs. Insurance for private practitioners is much, much more expensive in the US than where I hail from, because of the risk of running a malpractice suit that will get really expensive. The doctors need to cover that insurance, and where else does that money come from but patients?

Snarp's avatar

@Janka But isn’t it kind of convenient for insurance companies? “Sorry that we have to charge you a fortune for your health insurance and drop coverage at the drop of a hat, but we have to because doctors charge a lot of money so they can afford to pay us for the amount we charge them for malpractice insurance.”

Yetanotheruser's avatar

@Snarp I agree. We need insurance reform, rather than tort reform. The same insurance companies who provide you with health care may also cover the malpractice on the doctors, and some may actually own the facilities where their doctors practice. Here’s an article in the National Ledger that can provide you with a bit of an understanding. Obviously, the article is not unbiased, but it’s a good place to start.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

It was very kind of all of you to do someone’s homework for them.
I am always suspect of brand new flutherites asking such specific “homework” type questions.

DrMC's avatar

Does anyone know the second largest contributor to Obama’s campaign, and why we’ll never see improvement in efficiency of the most corrupt malpractice system in the world?

The CBO just raised the wasted dollars estimate from 5 billion to 50 billion. This is an underestimate. It is impossible to measure the effect of decades of litigation on practices in a profession. You have no idea the adverse effect.

Many many patients in my practice are denied opportunities for meds, as I see the questionable benefit to them is not worth the risk to me. Were the courts more fair and honest I would be more willing to assume risk. Often does the problem patient have to make the several hours drive to the big city.

Lawyers are merely agents of a broken system, don’t blame them. Blame the patients who sue for hot coffee. How many McDonald employees could receive health-care coverage with that payout.

there is a renegade group of lawyers who envision a better system, similar to that run in new zealand.

The people above think that doctors are whining because it just hurts to get sued, when we have insurance anyways. This attitude just infuriates physicians more. 80% of recent physicians stated they were “furious” with current reform. The number one reason – lack of respectful tort reform.

The majority of malpractice goes uncorrected, and never results in damage or suit. Only the best cases with the best plaintiffs are selected for trial. For every case you hear of there are at least 10x that that will never see justice. For those 10 there are hundreds that never complain.

The money is distributed in a very high overhead system very long after the actual tort. Could you run a car company where 50% of the price is spent on the salesmen, and you get the car 5 years later, maybe?

Our legal system lacks egalitarian distribution,and is for profit. It’s inefficient and expensive. The wealthy have gloves that don’t fit and the poor line up to be executed.

Don’t be misled by so called “liberals” – they are liberating nothing but your hard earned money.

Janka's avatar

@Snarp, indeed, it is awfully practical for them. I am more of a patient and a doctor though than an insurance-saleswoman, so I am not amused. ;)

Snarp's avatar

@DrMC The McDonald’s lawsuit is so often used as an example of a frivolous lawsuit, but McDonald’s was actually negligent. There is a limit to how hot coffee should be when served to a customer, particularly in a flimsy paper cup that you are handing to them in their car. The woman didn’t burn her mouth with hot coffee, the coffee spilled in her lap resulting in sever burns. Perhaps if you had seen her injuries you would not be so callous.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence It didn’t seem to me to be a homework problem. I think the discussion has been more than homework related, however, I do agree with you about drawing the line between doing someone’s homework and discussing it.

JLeslie's avatar

@Snarp @DrMC The amount the McD’s woman was awarded was changed later to a much lower amount from the original number that was in the media. I don’t know the details, but my previous neighbor, who is a malpractice lawer, told me they never publicized the final result of the case. I have to say I think it is her own problem that she drinks her coffee in the car. Did the cup fall apart? That did happen to a friend of mine, NOT from McD’s, or did she spill it on herself? If she spilled it on herself, I have little empathy for her.

Snarp's avatar

From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald's_Restaurants

“Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her down to 83 pounds. Two years of medical treatment followed.

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for US $20,000 to cover her medical costs, which were $11,000, but the company offered only $800.

…a jury awarded $2.86 million to a woman who burned herself with hot coffee she purchased from fast food restaurant McDonald’s. The trial judge reduced the total award to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount…”

So she was severely injured, asked for pennies from a huge corporation to pay her medical bills, and sued when they offered less than enough to pay just for one night in a hospital room. And all anyone knows about it is that she got $2.86 million for spilling coffee, when the actual final judgment was for only $640,000 and no one knows how much money she actually got.

Now if you think that something was wrong with that, fine, but I think it’s important to know the facts and not just trade on the popular perception distorted by the media.

JLeslie's avatar

@Snarp thanks for the info. I have a few more questions before I make my determination. How hot is the coffee allowed to be, and how hot was it? Is the allowed temperature able to cause 3rd degree burns also?

The cup did not fall apart.

I agree McDonald’s should have paid for her hospital bills originally. If for nothing it would have been a better business decision.

I don’t drink in my car, either does my husband. I was raised by a mother who tends to point out what “could happen.” Stop short that lollipop could get caught in your throat. Stop short and you could spill that all over you. If you have that cup in your hand while moving your reaction time will be hampered. Every so often I do have water if I will be out for hours. Maybe twice a year I have a soda in the car. I never drink a hot beverage in my car, so I am probably less sympathetic.

I wonder if that law suit would work in European countries where driving is taken more seriously. The German car manufacturers had to learn to put more cup holders in the cars that were marketed to America, because in Germany their focus is on the driving, not having a moving house with seats that feel like your sofa and a kitchen nook.

I am assuming if she had been able to stand up the burns would not have been as severe.

JLeslie's avatar

Ok, I just read the link more thoroughly, sorry I had not done that first. The coffee did not seem overly hot to me. At home most people boil water to make tea and coffee. That would be hotter than what is at McD’s.

Snarp's avatar

@JLeslie I guess I’m just a little more sympathetic because I have a relative who had boiling water spilled on her as a child and is scarred for life.

But at home you don’t pick up the coffee and try to drink it right out of the coffee maker. There’s a question about what you should be handing to a customer.

What she really should have done is had the coffee poured into her own spill prove travel mug to reduce waste and improve safety.

JLeslie's avatar

I think they should have paid for her medical. That’s it. She was culpable also, but customary in the states to pay for injury that happens on your property.

JLeslie's avatar

@JLeslie I now someone also who’s little girl had boiling water spill on her…burns down her body. It was at home.

Don’t you assume coffee is hot though? She was not trying to drink it yet, she was preparing the coffee with milk and sugar when she spilled it.

I don’t think the spill proof mug solves it, she was opening the coffee when it spilled from what I understand. Do you mean McD’s should fill her coffee mug for her?

Snarp's avatar

@JLeslie Paying for the medical would have been the smart business decision. It certainly cost them a lot of money to fight it. I for one am a fan of punishing major corporations for not doing the right thing in the first place, but I guess that makes me a radical. They were just lucky they won the media war on the case, otherwise their decision would have been even more foolish.

I think that, as the jury decided, she and McDonald’s share the blame.

The spill proof mug was mostly a joke, but I do think the spill likely resulted in part from the cup losing some structural integrity when the lid was removed, so a rigid cup might have helped. But mainly I just can’t stand to think of the millions of disposable cups used on a daily basis.

JLeslie's avatar

@Snarp Hmmm. I have a feeling pulling the lid off, using some force, caused the drink to spill, rather than the rigidity of the cup in this case. Maybe the answer is to have a flip up part of the lid that you can easily add milk and sugar. I see she was elderly also, her dexterity may not be as good as an average middle aged adult. But, I did not see that mentioned.

I still say better not to drink coffee in the car. McD’s should have paid medical bills, AND the lawyers took advantage of the situation. Don’t you think?

Snarp's avatar

@JLeslie But it’s a lawyer’s job to fight for the most they can get for their clients. That’s how the system works, once you go to court both sides fight passionately for the most they can possible get, it’s the judge and jury’s jobs to make a fair decision.

I’m certain her age had a lot to do with the case. It’s one thing to hear the facts or the media spin on them, quite another to sit in the court room and actually see and listen to the elderly woman with third degree burns.

JLeslie's avatar

@Snarp Is that the lawyers job? I am being serious not sarcastic. I know little about law. I know in criminal cases it is the lawyer’s job to defend their client, even if they know the client is guilty. Is it also true the the lawyer is supposed to fight for the most amount of money possible?

Snarp's avatar

@JLeslie Not in so many words, but knowing that what the judge and or jury awards is likely to be some kind of compromise, the smart strategic thing to do to get a fair settlement is to shoot for the moon. It’s kind of like negotiating, where if you ask for what you really want, you’ll have to settle for less. To get the right amount you have to ask for something more than you are willing to settle for to give some room to negotiate.

JLeslie's avatar

@Snarp Sucks. I tend to hate that type of system. I prefer integrity and being fair with each other, but I understand that is not going to work. Ok, thanks for the conversation :).

DrMC's avatar

@Snarp regarding “But it’s a lawyer’s job to fight for the most they can get for their clients.” – does this apply if the plaintiff is really culpable, and the jury is hand picked for gullibility?

At what point of being wrong does it not become the job of a lawyer, or is right or wrong for sale, like everything else in America?

Think if this were a malpractice suit. Whether or not the case had merit – the perception is one of legal misconduct.

How then will this dissuade tort wrong doing and motivate good behavior?

It’s no longer do the right thing

Now its do as much as possible to make sure a sleazy plaintiff and lawyer don’t take you to the cleaners. That co$t$ money, and guess who’$ paying.

That is the current, tightly held medical perception, reinforced by the maneuvering of the trial lawyers in their dance with Obama. What is the long term effect, and money to be lost due to CYA medicine?

Can you, like Carl Sagan say billions, and billions, and billions…..

Don’t take my word for it. I’m just a doctor, what would I know about CYA spending?

CyanoticWasp's avatar

It’s not as simplistic as “greedy and sleazy lawyers” or “greedy and sleazy businessmen”. It’s a complex issue, since it involves “access”—if we adopt a “loser-pays” system, then a lot of poor people with legitimate grievances won’t be heard, because they’d need a deep-pockets attorney to represent them. On the other hand, we seem to understand the risks inherent in the current system, and no one can say that people don’t have “access” to an attorney if they think they have a case to bring.

I would like to see more sanctions placed on “harassment” type lawsuits, however. I think it would also help to have some type of caps placed on both damage awards and attorneys’ contingencies, which would provide some disincentive against excessive awards.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I believe the people who suffer real and serious damages as a result of another party’s neglect or carelessness deserves compensation.

Corporations keep teams of attorneys on retainer to do everything possible to prevent the injured party from collecting fair compensation, even when doing so would minimize their client’s exposure and the injured party’s suffering because the law firm’s income is maximised by “churning the file”.

This common practice underlies the huge contingency agreements for attorneys representing the injured party. They lawyers have to do excess work over long periods while waiting years to get paid for their work.

Churning the file also leads to unreasonable delays in obtaining a settlement and congestion of court dockets.

Insurance companies profits are maximised by denying reasonable claims, then offering ridiculously low settlements, and imposing horrific delays by demanding all kinds information and outside assessments and interviews that in many cases do not advance their case at all.

They do this because even when they know that they will ultimately have to pay out the policy limits. The longer they delay making payments, the more money they make with the claimants money in their possession.

Tort reform will mostly protect negligent companies and their attourneys at the expense of injured parties.

Frivolous lawsuits can be dealt with by the courts in preliminary hearings where cases without sufficient merit can be prevented from progressing unless they can demonstrate that their case has substance and merit.

Most motorists can’t afford the premiums necessary to cover their exposure should their negligence cause innocent parties severe and permanent harm.

Far too many States permit drivers to be inadequately insured for 3rd party liability because of the outrageous premiums for such coverage.

In Canada, most drivers are required to insure themselves for $1,000,000 of 3rd party liability. Most of us cover ourselves for $5,000,000 or more.

In Wisconsin, motorists are permitted to insure themselves for as little as $100,000 and drive. Courts require injured parties to accept this minuscule insured limits as a condition of receiving court ordered settlements. That means in the US, even if you win a fair settlement in court, if the person who injured severely and permanently disables you intentionally underinsured themselves to save money, you have to take the policy limits or nothing even where your real losses are much, much greater.

Insurance companies have perverted court justice and they seek to avoid even having to compensate injured parties by pushing for tort reform!

DrMC's avatar

I do think loser pays denies some access, legal fee caps instead of award caps is a thought, but then cases would not be brought.

How about a system that is funded by an insurance type of system, and MD performance etc effects rates. Plaintiffs are not examined by a jury unless there is contest, first mediation is attempted new Zealand style.

The action of monitored harms could be linked to performance measures of the system, drugs, surgeries, and individuals using them. Also patient factors to be considered (butt loads are self inflicted and society payed).

A more expedient, efficient system, not too different from the British. Why they thought they could impose a British health-care system without British tort is beyond me.

Boy, me a doctor, proposing how the lawyers will get screwed in the future, isn’t that ironic. Kinda like what’s been going on the last 6 months with respect to doctors.

Maybe could try a results oriented system. Harmed individuals helped and not helped versus harm to the system. The system would have to evolve itself to meet the quota – kinda like docs are being forced to.

Or maybe
Atlas
Will
Shrug.

Dominic's avatar

Worth noting is the McDonald’s Coffee plaintiff’s initial $2+ million jury award was based on her medical bills plus the amount of money McDonald’s makes from selling coffee in America on a single day. Fun fact, I suppose.

thekoukoureport's avatar

just a side note. Missouri has enacted a system of Tort reform. Go see what insurance premiums are there. Like every argument we wish to focus on the ones that take advantaged and fail to see the ones that are taken advantage of. Amazing how so many organizations have endorsed the healthcare package but we still hear the same old tired fear based argument.

Health insurance companies said that if everyone was covered they would be able to insure everyone. How is that hurting them. It’s sure helping the individual who just got cancer, maybe keep his house and his family from being a ward of the state.

people who are bitching about forced healthcare either;
a; already have insurance or
b; complain about bums taking advantage of the system.

We finaly have a man Elected by the people, signing legislation of the people, created and written of the people. Yup sounds constitutional to me!

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