Tuesday, June 8 2004

Tort reform

[ah, the joys of arguing with friends; this little anecdote was originally composed for a mailing list of the friends I play card and board games with on weekends, one of whom described tort reform as “crippling the justice system”]

A few years back, I was foreman on a jury in the civil suit that came out of a car accident. A commercial driver ran a red light and hit some woman’s car, causing damage and injury. The insurance companies had already settled the car damage, the company and their driver openly took full responsibility, and the woman wasn’t seriously injured.

We nitpicked every line-item of her medical bills, knocking out some of the physical therapy and correcting their arithmetic. And then we gave her $20,000 for pain and suffering.

Personally, I thought that the number should have been $0, because they never disputed their responsibility or tried to evade paying for her legitimate medical bills. Maybe I’d have given her money for legal fees and other expenses if they’d tried to avoid paying, but they didn’t; their driver made a mistake, and they handled it properly.

I know I tend to have a somewhat… forceful personality, so I carefully hid my feelings on the subject and asked the rest of the jury if they thought she deserved any money for pain and suffering. Everyone said yes, and I asked if $1,000 was the right amount. By the time I got up to $5,000, I think three people agreed, but it wasn’t until I hit $20,000 that everyone was convinced it was enough.

I then asked if anyone thought $20,000 was excessive. No one spoke up. The immigrant-owned small business didn’t have great insurance, or they wouldn’t have been the defendants. They didn’t have much cash, or they’d probably have settled out of court. But we didn’t talk about the impact our decision would have on them; we talked about our own experiences with injuries and accidents, and how it feels to recover from them.

And that’s what I think about when someone mentions tort reform. There’s a good chance we crippled that small business, and no one even thought about it.

How many times does this happen every day, and how many times is it worse? By an order of magnitude or more? If we’d been dealing with the representative of a deep-pockets insurance company, would we have given her even more? How much more?