The civil justice system allows victims to make claims under tort law to get compensation for the personal injury caused by the negligence of others. Recent reports in the Washington Post have troubling news for victims who wish to use the civil justice system to exercise their legal rights. Some politicians want to reform this system. Although they claim the goal is to end frivolous lawsuits, the reality is these tort reforms would have a profoundly adverse impact on the rights of plaintiffs to effectively use the civil justice system to be "made whole" from harm they have endured.
Powerful groups like the Chamber of Commerce support proposals to reform the civil justice system, so it is likely some changes will be made, although the extent of the changes is not yet clear. If reforms occur, it will become even more vital for victims who wish to pursue civil claims to get help from an experienced attorney who knows how to work within the system.
The reality is there aren't many "frivolous lawsuits" to begin with. It's more or less an excuse to slash the ability of consumers to seek adequate compensation.
According to reports on proposed tort reform bill H.R. 1215, the changes would substantially reduce the number of meritorious lawsuits filed to protect civil rights and the rights of consumers. A proposal put forth would impose sanctions on attorneys who file frivolous claims on behalf of plaintiffs. Although this sounds reasonable in theory, a similar measure that was previously in effect significantly reduced claims based on violations of environmental laws, employee protection laws, and civil rights laws. The rule was ultimately rescinded due to these systemic issues.
The latest tort reform proposals would also make it harder for victims to get compensation even when they win. Tort reform proponents want to impose damage caps on malpractice cases which would limit the rights of victims hurt by the negligence of doctors, surgeons, nurses and other health care professionals. Damage caps on the state level stripped juries and judges of the power to mete out the appropriate amount of non-economic damages. This is unfortunate because judges and juries are the ones tasked with closely weighing the evidence, including the stories of victims who suffered negligence on the part of healthcare providers. Judges and/ or juries may believe a victim is entitled to a sizable amount of damages, but damage caps limit the amount they can award for this pain and suffering. This only serves to harm those whose lives have been upended or ruined by medical malpractice. The burden of proof in these cases is already such that frivolous claims are practically non-existent or do not make it past the summary judgment phase.
If the proposed reform passes, no malpractice victim in the country would be able to obtain more than $250,000 in compensation for non-economic damages (i.e., pain and suffering, punitive damages).
Other rules which are being considered would prohibit federal officials from entering into settlements allocating money to third-party groups who use it to help people who have been damaged by wrongdoing. There would also be rules which would make it harder for federal class action cases to be certified so large groups of plaintiffs could receive compensation for similar wrongs by bringing one case. All of these reforms would impose significant barriers to victims who wish to use the civil justice system to get compensation for harm they have endured.