Thursday, September 15, 2005

Should Utah Pursue Tort Reform? You Bet!

The causes of skyrocketing health care costs are admittedly complex. De Lamar Gibbons, a medical doctor in Blanding Utah, argues here that health insurance is a major culprit and that the resulting excesses in the system will drive us into the abyss of socialized medicine. Certainly, the decoupling of the consumer from the true cost of health care distorts the economics of the relationship and is part of the problem.

When the topic of rising health care costs comes up, the topic of judicial tort reform isn’t far behind. This always engenders a rather warm debate. One side contends that heartless ambulance chasing lawyers are forever driving up the cost of health care through excessive legal action. They frequently argue for caps on personal injury awards among other tort reforms. The other side argues that these measures will not reduce health care costs and will heartlessly punish those that have suffered from others’ negligence.

Representative of the two sides of the debate are the following two organizations. The American Tort Reform Association works to “bring greater fairness, predictability, and efficiency to the civil justice system.” The American Trial Lawyers Association (which some claim is the parent company of the Democratic Party) works to “promote justice and fairness for injured persons, safeguard victims' rights--particularly the right to trial by jury--and strengthen the civil justice system.”

Of course, each side maligns the other, or at least the positions of the other. I must admit some bias here. During the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards I nearly threw up when Edwards, who made his fortune as a personal injury lawyer, talked smarmily about how proud he was of his work suing the heck out of “big” businesses. My wife, who has had a career as an insurance adjustor, looks at most ambulance chasing lawyers like they are the devil incarnate. She has seen these guys write a few letters and then charge their victims – oops – clients a third of the settlement they would have gotten anyway without the letters.

It seems like all sides agree that there are excesses and abuses in our civil justice system. Even John Edwards admitted such in the aforementioned debate. So the debate comes down to whether the measures sought by the tort reformers will actually achieve the desired results. Will they bring more sanity to our legal system? Will they reduce the cost of health care (or at least reduce the rate of cost increases)?

After four years of trying, the State of Mississippi (previously known as the “jackpot justice capital of America”) last year passed comprehensive tort reform. Charlie Ross, who is a state senator that championed the legislation writes here about the successes that are already apparent, providing evidence that tort reform works. The legislation included among other things “venue reform (so trial lawyers cannot shop around for favorable courts) and caps on subjective noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering).”

He notes that while long-term effects are yet unknown, insurance is becoming more available, insurance and legal costs are declining, new businesses are being attracted to the state, and faith is being restored in the legal system. He says that some of the success wouldn’t have happened without decisions by the state’s supreme court that “reinstated the traditional rules of joinder of plaintiffs.” He also says that all of the brouhaha during the four-year campaign “raised public awareness of the problem, which in turn affected judicial elections.”

The immediate impact? Mississippi’s mass-tort industry has virtually been eliminated. Ambulance chasing lawyers are having to find honest work.

Should we try similar legislation here in Utah? You bet! It would be worth it just to reduce those annoying ambulance chasers’ commercials. Just remember, a portion of every dollar you pay in insurance premiums goes to further enrich those slimeballs you see in those cheesy TV ads.


Anonymous said...

Here is a terrifing article about why we need tort reform. If I lived in Nevada and my wife got pregnant I might have to send here out of town to get the prenatal care she would need. This article is somewhat dated, but likely still mostly accurate.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Mark, thanks for the link. I have read a number of similar articles. California and Illinois are having the same problem. Here in Utah my wife had to select a differet doctor for the birth of our youngest chile because her long-time doctor quit doing OB. Granted, his decision included his age and his need to not be on call all hours of the day and night, but the malpractice insurance rates also played a role.