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Understanding tort reform and its potential consequences, Part 3

We have discussed the issue of tort reform in a variety of ways. Unfortunately tort reform has become a recurring topic that males it into the public debate without any significant premise for its need. Concerns over health care costs, the potential for so-called frivolous lawsuits and a fear of a possible runaway jury are frequently the pegs that reformers rely on to argue to limit the constitutional rights of injury victims, while immunizing negligent actors from liability for the catastrophic harms they cause.

Tort law and tort reform: What is the answer?

In January and March, we discussed how strongly the founders of our country valued the importance access to the courts to resolve controversies. The framers believed that the jury system is vital to freedom and self-governance. The Seventh Amendment expressly guarantees the right to a jury to decide issues of fact in injury cases. Tort reform ultimately seeks to deny victims of negligence from having members of the community decide facts on an individual basis. It seeks to have detached lawmakers decide how much a life is worth in an arbitrary fashion under the guise of protecting Americans.

Fears Over The Runaway Jury

Tort reformers frequently point to anecdotal stories about jury awards over issues such as burn injuries from hot coffee to create an emotional response, founded on misdirection. The stories invariably stop short of explaining the full facts and actual outcomes. Runaway verdicts are rare, as members of juries are well-known for their sense of duty, and justice, in our legal system.

Moreover, the legal system provides mechanisms to control jury verdicts that are unsupported by the evidence, while maintaining the integrity of the Seventh Amendment. Defendants may seek a new trial under rule 59 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Often, a motion for a new trial may include a request to reduce the amount of a jury award if the evidence does not support the findings or it appears the jury verdict was based upon prejudice that shocks the conscious. 

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