Saturday, January 15, 2005

Tort Reform - Taking Away More Of Our Rights

Bush caused a stir down in Collinsville, IL when he visited recently to talk about medical malpractice lawsuits. This is a rather contentious issue, with the American Medical Association apparently more interested in lowering their malpractice insurance costs than in implementing reforms within their profession to weed out the bad doctors who are causing the "crisis." Of course, since doctors are allied with the Republican party while trial lawyers tend to be Democrats, Bush is pushing for malpractice award limits.

Lost amid the excitement about the "first sitting president to visit Collinsville" was a very telling fact: while Collinsville's Madison County has a reputation for large jury awards against corporations, medical malpractice suits are not really a problem there (IIRC, this was in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune). At first blush, one might laugh this off as another Bush gaffe--holding a press conference about malpractice where it isn't even an issue. This time, however, there is a more ominous undercurrent.

Medical malpractice limits (which are not as universally effective in holding down malpractice or health insurance costs as Bush would have you believe) are part of a bigger issue called tort reform. Bush demonizes trial lawyers (look at his 2004 stump speeches where he says "trial lawyers" with the same sneer as "activist judges") and wants to limit their power. While all of us have heard stories of frivolous lawsuits, we forget that the "power" of trial lawyers is really our power. If Bush's tort reforms are passed, Americans will lose their primary means of holding corporations accountable for unsafe products and dangerous business practices. As we move toward a corporatocracy, the federal government is doing less to protect us. Deregulation is a consistent theme in the conservative movement, and the current administration is doing its part. Without the government suing or disciplining corporate malfeasance, who is going to stop these companies from taking advantage of workers and consumers?

While Bush's idea of tort reform is to limit the ability of individuals to sue corporations, it turns out that
corporations themselves file far more lawsuits. According to a Public Citizen survey of cases in Arkansas, Mississippi, Cook County (IL), and Philadelphia (the few jurisdictions where reliable data about whether cases are filed by trial lawyers or businesses exists), businesses file four times as many lawsuits as individuals do, although there are forty times more individuals than businesses in the United States. Corporations want to limit your right to sue while preserving their own access to the courts. Keep this in mind when Bush says he's helping you with tort reform.

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