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Are Lawsuits Such a Bad Thing After all?

I imagine you have read, seen and heard a lot about tort reform recently.  As the battle continues over tort reform in North Carolina, both sides of the aisle have been heating up the debate with radio and television ads. The debate has generated a lot of news coverage and letters to the editors. Speaking to the times, social media has also become a vital tool for both sides as Facebook statuses, tweets, and blogs hit the internet every day, sometimes several times a day, regarding the subject.

The debate on tort reform is nothing new. It has been around for well over two decades, and has become a focus of politicians on both the national and state level for the better part of the past fifteen years. Those who back reform, mainly Wall Street corporations and their special interest group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, constantly bemoan lawsuit abuse, frivolous litigation, and the lawsuit “explosion.” To be fair, there are frivolous lawsuits filed everyday in this country. But, the problem is nowhere near the level of catastrophe these groups would have you believe. Lets also not overlook those safeguards the system has in place already, which weed out these lawsuits many times before they even get off the ground.

All rhetoric aside, are the lawsuits trial lawyers like me file everyday such a bad thing after all? The lawsuit is a tool available to all of us, and is designed to enforce our rights. It is Justice’s sword. Without lawsuits, products would not be safer. Wrongdoers would not be punished. It was a lawsuit that led to Brown v. The Board of Education and ended “separate but equal,” integrating our schools. Lawsuits led to Griswold v. Connecticut and Lawrence v. Texas, keeping the government out of our bedrooms. It was a lawsuit that led to Reno v. ACLU, which helped ensure continued free speech rights on the Internet.  Lawsuits exposed generations of sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests. Lawsuits exposed the dangers posed to the public by tobacco and asbestos.

Good or bad, lawsuits are under attack. Especially those filed for a tort, or a civil wrong committed against another. Politicians and Wall Street interests seek to dull Justice’s sword for those working class individuals injured through the fault of someone else, largely because those injuries are insured by corporations looking to generate record profits rather than do what is fair and reasonable. I think we can all agree that a person who is hurt through the fault of someone else should be fairly compensated for their medical expenses and other damages. It would hardly be a good argument for the tort reformers to state that this principle is frivolous, and should be limited so that companies can make more profit. So instead, they attack people like me in expensive, well-packaged thirty second sound bites.

North Carolina Representative Stephen LaRoque (a Republican serving Lenoir, Wayne and Greene counties), is one of the elected officials pushing for tort reform in North Carolina. Rep. LaRoque believes strongly there should be a cap placed on non-economic damages to limit the recovery of victims of personal injury in North Carolina. He has been qouted saying, “‘Tort reform is vital if we are going to reduce the cost of health insurance,’ blaming ‘liberal trial attorneys trying to buy bigger yachts’ for driving up insurance costs for health care providers.”

I think this is a good time for a lesson on defamation. Defamation is a tort that occurs when an individual damages the reputation of another. The two main forms of defamation are libel and slander.  Libel is defamation in published form, and slander is defamation in audio form. It is an actionable tort, meaning that a person can file a lawsuit to collect money damages if they have been victimized by someone’s defamation of their character.

On October 4, 2010, Representative Stephen LaRoque filed this lawsuit in Lenoir County Superior Court for defamation. Rep. LaRoque seeks not only compensatory damages, but also punitive damages. The lawyers hired by Rep. LaRoque are lawyers that represent victims of personal injury. While pushing to limit peoples’ ability to pursue torts, he himself files a lawsuit based in tort and hires a law firm that handles cases that are “driving up insurance costs for health care providers.”

Part of the job of a legislature is to solve problems.  Let us now see if we can solve the following tort reform problem together for this particular legislator:

Scenario No. 1: A two year old child is left with a permanent brain injury and will never recover. She suffers seizures and requires around-the-clock care. She drools on herself. She cannot talk. This child is fed through a tube at every meal, and this will likely never change. This child requires therapy multiple times a week. She will never lead a normal life. This child’s injury was caused by a medical error. A preventable medical error. A lawsuit is filed to compensate this child for the wrongdoer’s actions, and to provide the financial resources needed to pay for the care she will forever need.

Scenario No. 2: A politician runs for office. His opponent distributes flyers as ads against him. The politician is angry with the ads, and doesn’t believe they are right. The politician wins the election, despite the ads his opponent runs. A lawsuit is filed by the politician against his opponent to obtain financial compensation for his allegedly bruised reputation.

The Tort Reform Problem: Which of the two scenarios above is the “frivolous” lawsuit?

If the tort reform measures backed by Rep. LaRoque and others in the General Assembly pass, the child described above will never be able to fully recover fair and just compensation for the avoidable actions of another that permanently ruined her life. The cost of her care may very well be placed on the taxpayers when the family can no longer afford to pay the bills, because her recovery was limited by an arbitrary cap set by legislatures like Rep. LaRoque. Meanwhile, Rep. LaRoque would be left able to fully recover fair and just compensation for words somebody else said about him, all without the worry of a cap on the damages his trial lawyers collect for him if they are successful with his lawsuit. Help us in defending your rights; tell Rep. LaRoque and other supporters of SB 33, HB 542, and HB 709 to vote “No!” on tort reform.

 

Disclaimer: The views of the author are his own. Nothing in this post should be construed to provide legal advice to any individual. The author is a trial attorney. He takes issue with the accusation that the lawsuits he files drives up everyone else’s health care costs. He fails to see how recovering money to enable his uninsured clients to pay those very bills would raise health care costs. Perhaps you can explain to him how it’s possible. The author also takes issue with the accusation that he files these lawsuits to buy a bigger yacht. In fact, the author does not own a yacht. This makes the author’s wife sad. The author can’t even afford a kayak, quite honestly. This makes the author’s wife even sadder. Perhaps the author should look into the possibility of a defamation lawsuit.

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