“Tort reform” critique in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
My good friend Jay Cook from Athens, a former president of the State Bar of Georgia, wrote a stellar guest editorial that appeared on the op/ed page of the AJC this morning. Acknowledging that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m reproducing the whole thing here:
First it was Vioxx. Then it was poisonous pet food. Now it’s toxic toys and chemically enhanced popcorn. Last year alone, unsafe products killed more than 8,000 Americans and sent millions more to emergency rooms. But let’s not lay the blame on the crippled regulatory agencies or the Chinese.
For once, let’s lay the blame where it really belongs: on the doorstep of those megacorporations that cut corners and break rules to gain unfair advantage over American businesses, big and small, that don’t.
Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that Mattel, which has recalled more than 20 million dangerous toys this summer alone, has delayed reporting product defects because it finds the reporting rules "unreasonable." According to The New York Times, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has fined Mattel twice for such delays since 2001.
The commission collects millions of dollars in penalties every year from U.S. companies that import or sell products that violate mandatory safety standards, fail to report potential hazards and fail to report lawsuits and settlements for product-related injuries.
And those are just the ones that get caught.
Clearly, dangerous goods are slipping past the safety standards set by the many regulatory government agencies that are supposed to be protecting us, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Last year, Dr. David Graham, the senior FDA drug safety researcher who blew the whistle on dangers of the pain-killer Vioxx, told the Senate Finance Committee that "the FDA is incapable of protecting America from unsafe drugs or from another Vioxx."
Now we’re learning that the EPA has been suppressing a report on the possible dangers of a chemical used in microwave popcorn. Copies of the report were provided to popcorn producers last July, but kept secret from the public.
But even with potent regulatory enforcement, Americans injured by defective products have only one place to turn for a remedy: our court system. But that, too, is being neutered by the same forces that are muzzling our watchdogs. A multimillion-dollar propaganda machine has convinced many of us (and our elected officials) that tethering our tort system will improve the economy.
It may be just the opposite. A briefing paper published last year by the Economic Policy Institute concluded: "The costs of the tort system have been grossly exaggerated, and its supposed impact on job creation, research and development, productivity, and profits has been exaggerated or simply invented. With respect to job creation in particular, significant tort law change would be more likely to slow employment growth than to promote it."
But the so-called "tort reform" movement marches on in perfect step with government deregulation. We’ve watched state after state weaken the ability of citizens to seek redress in the courts.
Access to justice for "the little guy" is the real target of these "reforms"— not the "problems" they’ve trumped up to trick us into giving them what they really want: damage controls that take the teeth out of our juries and the bite out of compensating the victims of their corner-cutting.
Tort law is a small but important facet of our civil justice system. We call it a tort when somebody acts unreasonably and harms another person’s body, property, legal rights or reputation. You can’t call the police when somebody commits a tort, but you can file a suit in the civil courts to seek an appropriate legal remedy.
The rules of our tort system are roughly the same common-sense principles we all learned as kids: Everybody should play fair. The one who broke the rules of fair play should pay for the damage they caused.
Our Founding Fathers understood that we needed these systems in place to make us safe and regulate the practices of fair play.
Let’s cut to the chase: There’s nothing wrong with making an honest buck. America was built on hard work and free enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with wanting higher profits. The American Dream still lives or dies in the profit margin.
But there is something wrong when profit-making turns into corner-cutting that puts public safety in peril. And there is definitely something wrong when some conscienceless megacorporations engage in "remedy rigging": gaming the system so that even when they cheat and get caught, they get no more than a gentle slap on the hand.
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents.