What Is Tort Reform?

A fair number of politicians at both the state and federal level like to use two words, “tort reform,” as the single best means to cure government overspending. However, considering that “tort” isn’t a commonly used word, it’s not always clear to the public what a tort even is or why it matters to the budget, let alone how we can best reform it.

What Is A Tort?

In the first place, the United States justice system is divided into two general areas: civil and criminal. In criminal cases, the prosecution is always the government, most often the state government, and the penalties assigned to a guilty party are prison time and government fines. Cases deal with criminal acts like theft and assault, but even if there’s a victim involved that victim won’t see any compensation or repayment for a loss from a criminal trial.

Civil law, on the other hand, covers just about everything that isn’t specifically a crime. There are no prosecutors, only plaintiffs, and the court assigns fault rather than determining guilt. A government can be a plaintiff or a defendant in a civil case, but a government doesn’t have to be involved outside of the judge.

There are a variety of subsections within civil law: there are copyright and patent laws, contract laws, tax laws, divorce and other family laws, and there are torts. Tort law covers harm done by one person or organization to another, either intentionally or through negligence, and it also covers strict liability situations where a party may be responsible for harm even without proof of negligence. In other words, “tort law” and “personal injury law” are very nearly synonymous.

Why Reform Torts?

When a politician speaks about tort reform, he or she is most likely talking about measures which make it harder for plaintiffs to pursue personal injury lawsuits or else place caps on the amount of noneconomic damages the plaintiff can receive. Economic damages include just about every kind that comes with an easy price tag, such as lost wages, disabilities, and property loss, whereas noneconomic damages include punitive damages along with pain and suffering. Another reform idea is to use arbitration boards instead of open court.

The idea behind imposing these reforms is that it can save money in two ways: first, by making it harder to initiate a lawsuit, it eases the burden on American courts. Second, by also limiting the amount of money a jury can award, companies and individuals won’t have to pay high premiums for liability insurance since insurance companies won’t have to pay as much in legal fees or damage payments.

However, there are some issues with this particular philosophy. First of all, the court system doesn’t demand a lot of money from any state or the federal government, and so reducing the number of tort cases is never going to balance any budget. Second of all, tort cases are very often complimentary to criminal cases since they are the only way the victim of a crime can receive compensation for a criminal act. Florida, for instance, has a cap on noneconomic damages for certain personal injury cases, but this law is being challenged as unconstitutional.

Personal injury cases may demand some taxpayer money to keep the courts open, and they may demand insurance money to pay for a strong defense, but this is money well spent to see that justice is done and that victims of both negligence and malicious acts are fairly compensated for their losses. Not every case is going to be cheap and not every jury award is going to be fair, but these are small prices to pay for a system which lets private citizens hold governments, corporations, and each other responsible for their actions..