The consumer activist and pro-civil justice blog ThePopTort.com informs us, somewhat in jest, that last week was the unofficial “House Tort Reform Week,” in which congressional leadership placed two so-called “tort reform” bills on the House floor and heard details in a subcommittee about a third. Despite overwhelming issues that plague this country following the debacle of the recent government shutdown and a lagging economic recovery, politicians in the House returned to their usual diversionary tactics rather than focusing on issues that affect individuals on a daily basis.
The first bill, H.R. 2655, has been called LARA, or the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act. The name alone assumes lawsuits are being abused (presumably in what tort reform advocates call “frivolous lawsuits”), which runs counter to evidence that the number of malpractice lawsuits is falling and that lawsuit payouts total less than one percent of medical spending in the United States. Seemingly ignorant of these facts, lawmakers are pushing forward.
In attempting to pass LARA, legislators are trying to strip judges of their ability to impose discretionary sanctions in those rare cases where individuals have filed baseless claims. In other words, sanctions would become mandatory rather than discretionary. ThePopTort points out that a similar law went into effect in 1983 and was removed in 1993. They also cite University of Houston Law Center Professor Lonny Hoffman, who claims “there is a remarkable degree of agreement among judges, lawyers, legal scholars and litigants across the political spectrum that the 1983 amendment […] was one of the most ill-advised procedural experiments ever tried.” Apparently having not learned the lessons of history, congressional leaders are looking for ways to curb “lawsuit abuse.”
The second bill (H.R. 982, called the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (or FACT Act), is an incredible violation of citizens’ privacy. If passed, it would require that asbestos claimants post–on a public website–their names, addresses, places of employment, income, medical information, award amount, and the last four digits of their social security numbers. It would also allow asbestos defendants access to personal information about anyasbestos claimants, even if they are not involved in a suit that involves them directly. The cynical transparency of this intimidation tactic would be laughable were it not such a serious violation of privacy and the right to full access to the courts.
The New York Times editorial board claimed in June that this would “make it harder for plaintiffs injured by asbestos to get fair compensation.” This would put a large burden on plaintiffs who already have “limited resources,” while placing “virtually no burdens on asbestos companies.” The political motivations behind this bill are clear, and they are slanted dramatically in favor of large corporations at the expense of private citizens.
The third bill, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, though it has not yet been introduced formally, is the subject of a hearing by the House Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy. According to ThePopTort, this bill, which “would preempt state efforts to protect the public from harmful chemicals,” is “well-intentioned but deeply flawed,” in that it aims to alter both regulation and tort remedies. It oversteps on “common-law duties [and] remedies available under state law,” and should not affect existing regulations and enforcement by state attorneys general.
As the old adage goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” A dysfunctional group of extremists continues to propose legislation to benefit well-financed special interest groups determined to shut the doors of our courts to private citizens.