Senate flubs chance to give legal system needed repair

Bob Tippee

The US Senate has passed up a chance to remove a heavy and growing burden from the economy.

On Oct. 22, it blocked a proposal to limit class-action lawsuits, in which plaintiffs combine cases against a single defendant.

The action was the second setback to President George W. Bush's effort to reform a legal system enriching lawyers and plaintiffs at the ballooning expense of everyone else.

In July, Congress rejected a bill to limit damages in medical malpractice suits.

The latest bill would have shifted to federal courts class-action cases involving at least 100 plaintiffs and $5 million in damages.

Plaintiffs' attorneys now file class-action suits in state courts with reputations for hitting wealthy defendants with expensive judgments.

The Senate bill to shift jurisdictions stalled when a vote to allow action came up 1 vote shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.

A proliferation of enormous judgments in cases involving civil wrongs, called torts, is making lawsuit avoidance central to business and medical strategies. And it's encouraging lawyers and potential defendants to scrounge for litigation opportunities.

The Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research estimates US tort costs at more than $200 billion/year�2% of gross domestic product. The estimate excludes tobacco settlements, most contract and securities litigation, most punitive damages, and nontort legal fees.

The institute calls this transfer of wealth away from productive uses a "tort tax," which it projects will total more than $3.6 trillion during the next 10 years if costs increase at their trend rate of the last 30 years. At 2001's greater rate of increase, the 10-year "tax" would exceed $4.8 trillion.

Why doesn't Congress end this spiraling perversity?

Opponents of reform say change would deny tort victims justice.

Rubbish. Justice doesn't need to cost society hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

The real reason Congress won't act is political money.

According to the Manhattan Institute, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America gave political campaigns $2.8 million in 2002�third highest among political action committees.

Lawyers, victims, and politicians are cashing in on the American legal system, which needs repair.

(Author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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