Editorial: Congress should take up tort reform

If the leaders of the new Democratic majority in Congress are really serious about holding down health care costs, they can prove it by enacting meaningful tort reform early next year. The legal system has become a lottery for high-priced lawyers who often recruit plaintiffs and then pocket billions of dollars from jury awards, adding to the skyrocketing cost of health insurance for everybody else.

The urgency here is seen in the fact that the costs of lawsuit abuse have exceeded the gross domestic product for the last half-century, according to a report by Tillinghast-Towers-Perrin research firm. No wonder lawsuit abuse cost more than $246 billion or $3,380 for a family of four in 2003, the most recent year for which data is available.

Efforts are being made at the state level to reduce or end lawsuit abuse, but plaintiff lawyers provide powerful obstacles. The Georgia Supreme Court recently struck down a reasonable state law that requires plaintiffs in asbestos class-action lawsuits to prove that asbestos was “a substantial contributing factor to their medical condition.” The law requires them to provide at least some evidence of physical impairment directly related to asbestos exposure.

The Georgia law was passed in reaction to clear abuse of the legal system. Last year, Judge Janis Jack, a former nurse and now a federal judge in Corpus Christi, Texas, discovered that lawyers in more than a hundred similar silicosis lawsuits filed in eight states had essentially fabricated diagnoses. Their “clear motivation” was to “inflate the number of plaintiffs and claims,” Judge Jack wrote.

But Georgia’s high court ruled the state’s tort reform law was unconstitutional. It’s apparently too much of a burden to prove you’ve been harmed before you sue for millions of dollars in damages. Public health experts believe the fear of litigation is inhibiting the free flow of information that could improve the nation’s medical care, so every American is affected by the current state of affairs.

Two years ago, both Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, a doctor, and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a lawyer, suggested that lawyers be required to get an expert physician to certify a claim before a malpractice lawsuit is filed. This would be a good first step in the right direction.

But so much more is needed, including legislation requiring full financial disclosure by all personal injury lawyers and expert witnesses in any case in which plaintiffs request payment of damages or other compensation by the maker or seller as a result of use of any legal product?

Also, why not require the losing plaintiff to cover the defendants’ legal expenses? And why shouldn’t personal injury lawyers be willing to work on class-action lawsuits for a set fee determined by the court upon determination by the judge that the case has merit? Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can demonstrate her mettle by making a first order of business the taming of the plaintiffs’ bar. We will be watching this issue closely.

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