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Tort Reform: How Good of An Idea Is It?

Posted in Blog on March 4, 2015

The word “tort” is Latin and means to “wrong, harm or twist.” In the court system, a tort case is a redressing of a wrong, i.e., a tort that was inflicted by an offender. This type of action does not include consideration of criminal law; it is a civil case and, as such, is tried in civil court.

A classic example of this type of case was the tort case brought against McDonald’s by the 81-year-old woman who received third-degree burns from scalding coffee. The jury in this case awarded the woman significant damages, and although the judge overseeing the case reduced her award significantly, it was proven that the coffee McDonald’s served through its drive-thru service was heated to a much higher temperature than the coffee served inside the fast-food restaurant, and it was this action that directly resulted in the woman’s injury.

The McDonald’s case aptly demonstrates the ongoing issue of tort cases. There are those who support tort civil suits, and those who are adamantly opposed to such suits and are currently seeking “tort reform.”

The Goal of Tort Reform

Those seeking tort reform perceive that, in part, juries are in the habit of awarding outrageously high sums to an injured party, and that this must be brought in line somehow. What is overlooked is the fact that tort cases aren’t common, and, as the McDonald’s case demonstrated, the trial judge may reduce the amount of damages awarded by the jury.

Another misunderstood fact surrounding tort cases is that there are generally good reasons for an award to be high. If someone suffered damages that caused him or her to endure extensive rehabilitation or suffer from a long-term disability, he or she needs money to cover medical and living expenses.

Because the injured did not the harm him or herself, the money should arguably come from the person or entity that caused the tort. The amount that is requested is based upon hard data that is used to determine how much income is lost, an estimate of the medical bills, collateral costs and any other bills that have to be paid.

This number is then multiplied over the length of time a person is expected not to be whole – temporarily or permanently – and a final damage award is determined. This number is submitted through the court case, and the jury or judge can decide on how much of it to award the plaintiff, if any at all.

Tort reform, in part, seeks to put caps on how much can be awarded in a lawsuit, and while this is a laudable effort, it can do more harm than good. It is sometimes possible to put tangible costs on certain aspects of a personal injury case, but not always.

In the event that someone is severely injured in a type of case that has award caps on it, the injured may wind up paying out of pocket for his or her care, and if he or she can’t work, he or she is at risk of losing everything. These caps only benefit those who cause harm, not the victims, and it’s easy to see that reform is a good idea in theory, but is not a good idea in practice. Learn more at: www.zanerhardenlaw.com.

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