One area of the U.S. legal system most in need of reform is tort law. Tort law aims to provide relief to individuals, groups, and businesses that have suffered from non-criminal damages unjustly caused by others.
Over the past several decades, an increasing trend in tort law is for courts to award substantial punitive damages to plaintiffs, rather than primarily focusing on restoring what has been lost. This has morphed the U.S. legal system into one inundated with frivolous, costly lawsuits that stifle innovation, discourage virtually all forms of risk-taking, and put small businesses who cannot afford a lawsuit in a constant state of fear. It has also encouraged local, state, and federal agencies to increase the number of regulations meant to prevent damages.
This problem was infamously put on display in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, when a customer was initially awarded $2.86 million for damages caused by a self-inflicted coffee spill. Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old plaintiff, successfully argued the coffee was unreasonably hot and that McDonald’s should be punished for its allegedly dangerous coffee.
Tort reform includes several types of measures. These include caps on noneconomic damages and punitive damages, limits on joint and several liability (in which one defendant is held liable for the damages caused by all defendants in multiparty cases), limits on contingent fees charged by attorneys, required filing of a physician’s certification that a case has merit (in medical malpractice cases), and qualifications for expert witnesses.
Tort reform should be enacted at the state level. Federal tort reform would raise hundreds of legal issues of unprecedented complexity. Resolving them would delay damage recoveries in valid cases while the overburdened judicial system struggled to decide each issue individually.