The Fallacy of Tort Reform

A favorite bugaboo of the Republican party, often traipsed out during election years, is the dreaded “liberal trial lawyer.” As portrayed by conservatives, the trial lawyer is an invidious presence in our society, praying on helpless corporations who are punished siimply for being wealthy. Aided and abetted by liberal laws and gullible juries, the trial lawyer grows bloated by feeding on more honest members of our society, bursting with so much wealth himself that the only outlet is to give money to other liberals, who simply want to perpetuate the system and wage war against hard working businessmen.

But our current civil system plays an important oversight role in our society. While I often advocate a robust federal government as a cornerstone to a functioning democratic society, individuals and private citizens also make important contributions. By providing opposing attorneys fees and punitive damages in certain types of suits, our civil system promotes safety for consumers. Defective products or predatory mortgage lending often victimize already disadvantaged members of our society: without incentive from the civil system to bring suit, the perpetrators of these harms would never be punished, and therefore would never be compelled to change their behavior.

Many torts in our society pit poor individuals against big corporations. Our civil system tries to level the playing field, though those with money still maintain a huge advantage. When tort reform is trotted out, the underlying issue is not the enrichment of a few liberal trial lawyers; the true issue is whether we are going to give the advantaged and privileged in our society even more power over ordinary citizens.

Cato