Legal Expert Says Tort Reform Helping, But More Abuse Looms

December 15, 2006
Michael Van Winkle

(Chicago, Illinois - December 15, 2006) Two reports released this week assessing the legal environment in the United States are giving tort reform advocates cause for optimism. But according to Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs for The Heartland Institute in Chicago, "it's too early to break out the champagne."

The American Tort Reform Association's annual "Judicial Hellholes" report, released on December 13, paints a mixed picture. Reforms are being implemented in some jurisdictions, leading to courts that are fairer to defendants. But other jurisdictions--including some previously considered more neutral--are beginning to tilt toward plaintiffs.

This year's Hellholes are West Virginia, south Florida, parts of Texas, and the Counties of Cook, Madison, and St. Clair in Illinois.

Also released December 13 was the 10th annual Towers Perrin/Tillinghast report on tort costs to defendants and insurers. Overall, the costs have fallen from an annual increase of 5.7 percent in 2004 to a 0.5 percent increase in 2005.

The problem, as Martin sees it, is that "reforms in some areas of the law have helped reduce tort costs and prevent frivolous litigation, but reforms to date are reminiscent of the Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dike--as soon as one type of abusive litigation is curbed other types spring to life.

"Two examples of new pursuits by the plaintiffs' trial bar, " Martin explains, "are novel public nuisance claims that negate product liability law and obesity litigation against a wider array of defendants, including doctors who fail to warn their obese patients to lose weight. The impact of such claims and other legal novelties has not yet fully materialized. The creativity of trial lawyers on the hunt for litigation-for-profit ought not be underestimated."


For further comment from The Heartland Institute on these two reports, contact Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs, at martin@heartland.org or by telephone at 920/295-6032.