It was not surprising to see that when challenged to name an example of a “frivolous lawsuit” in the video posted in yesterday’s blog, Stephen Colbert first thought of what multiple media outlets referred to as “The Great American Pants Suit.” In that case first filed in 2005, DC administrative law judge Roy Pearson sued the owners of Custom Cleaners for more than $67 million after allegedly losing a pair of gray pants. Pearson not only lost the suit, but lost his job as well. (He then sued for wrongful termination and lost that too.)
As Susan Saladoff noted in her response to Colbert, while Pearson’s case might represent a “frivolous lawsuit,” it also represents why lawsuits without merit do not succeed. The system already has a number of safeguards (the likelihood that the lawsuit is tossed, a dozen citizens on a jury who will not give money to filers of “frivolous lawsuits,” a judge who can reduce any jury award, appeals, etc.) in place to ensure the process retains its integrity.
What is important to keep in mind with the subject of tort reform, however, is that the idea of limiting the damages will do nothing to stop the publicity hounds like Pearson from pursuing legal action in what the DC Circuit Court characterized as “a personal vendetta against a dry cleaners over a pair of pants.” Instead, tort reform substantially softens the impact of more serious matters of public concern by simultaneously failing to penalize the negligent party financially and severely limiting the compensation for the individuals wronged.
When it comes to tort reform, we should be basing our opinions not on the worst examples of litigation, but rather on the people left with literally no other options because the awards from their successful lawsuits still forced them to seek out foreclosure help. Victims with legitimate medical malpractice and personal injury claims have to enter a Chapter 13 or Chapter 7 bankruptcy process when the justice system fails them, and the surest way to reduce the number of victims forced to file bankruptcy is to make sure that the people and families effected by negligence receive every last dollar they are entitled to.
If tort reform was seriously about fixing a broken system, you would think that would involve ways to improve safety for patients and consumers. Instead, the focus is entirely on protecting the bottom lines of the system’s worst offenders.