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Origins And Benefits Of The Tort System In America

Most people learned in Civics 101 that the Constitution places limits on the power of the government. Providing a monarch, or dictator, with ultimate authority to decide issues in governing a country eliminates the possibility of individual freedoms. Moreover, the Constitution creates significant checks and balances on each branch of the government to protect individual liberty.  Having access to the courts – and juries --to address civil disputes did not originate on this continent. Scholars indicate that juries developed in early civilizations. However, many agree that the direct roots of the American jury system arose in England in the Twelfth century.

As the colonists sought independence from the crown, the framers determined that the tort system and civil juries were vital in a country founded on freedom. The original text of the Constitution created the judicial branch, but remained silent on the issue of the civil jury. That drew protests from many who believed that juries serve as a vital check and balance on government power, as well as on the rich and powerful.  The Seventh Amendment and the Bill of Rights were developed to ensure that the tort system and civil juries would be available for individuals to resolve their differences in a civilized manner.

Understanding The Benefits Of The Civil Tort System

Sir William Blackstone argued that public officials might lean toward the powerful in governing and making decisions. He argued that even though judges and political leaders rely and operate on personal integrity, they are subject to their own biases. Human nature dictates that the few who have power may not always serve the interests of all individuals and may act to the benefit of “those of their own rank and dignity,” according to Stephen Landsman in an article published in the Duke Law School quarterly, Law and Contemporary Problems.

Promoting Safety Through The Deterrent Effect Of The Tort System

Blackstone also recognized the deterrent effect that the civil jury system has on actions the rich and powerful make take. He said, the rich and powerful -- often referred to today as the 1 per centers or big business—will think hard about violating the rights of others with the knowledge that  the negligent or oppressive act will be “examined and decided by twelve indifferent men, not appointed till the hour of trial,” according to the William and Mary Law Review. The deterrent effect today extends beyond the rich and powerful. Drivers know that if they take risks, harm is more likely. We all know that insurance premiums will skyrocket after an accident. Deterrence is a strong benefit of civil tort law.

Holding Wrongdoers Accountable

The tort system is an efficient method of allocating costs and fairness. When someone acts negligently and harms another, the victim should not have to pay for the harm. Moreover, if the wrongdoer is not held liable for the costs, government programs often need to be tapped. Taxpayers should not bear the burdens caused by an individual who is directly responsible. Shifting the costs to where they belong achieves justice in a manner that is consistent with our foundation of freedom.

As the founders knew, the tort system -- and juries – help to maintain impartiality.  Justice is placed in the hands of impartial people instead of the connected, rich and powerful. As we have previously discussed, big business lobbies hard in an effort to seek tort reform. The proposed reform seeks to limit the authority of juries.  Tort reform serves to tilt the balance of power in favor of big business and reduce or eliminate the check and balances on power that juries serve.

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