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Imagery Taints “Tort Reform” Debate

Being injured by the negligence of a health care provider is expensive. Medical malpractice costs add up when one considers not only medical bills but also missed work, lost wages, pain and suffering, loss of companionship, and all of the other potential costs of a serious injury or death. Yet the innocent image of the injured patient is rarely what an average American thinks of when he or she thinks of a malpractice case. Thanks to misleading and confusing industry imaging, there is instead a false image of medical malpractice plaintiffs that needs to be challenged.

West Virginia Survey Shows People Mistakenly Favor “Tort Reform”

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph, a West Virginia newspaper, recently reported on the state of so-called “tort reform” and public opinions regarding whether it is needed. Their report cited a recent study done by an anti-plaintiff organization that showed that a majority of people in West Virginia support “tort reform.” Half of the people surveyed thought for some reason that “tort reform” would improve the state’s economy, and nearly three quarters thought it would improve the job market. While its understandable that voters would care passionately about the economy, it seems wrong on its face that they would then favor tort reform. While economic improvement does require a certain level of allowing responsible businesses to make profitable decisions, that is not what “tort reform” does.

A vital civil justice system not marred by tort reform instead allows individuals injured by the bad behavior of irresponsible businesses including those in the medical field to receive the compensation they deserve. Doing this allows those injured parties to carry on normal lives and be the type of consumer a vibrant economy needs, rather than being saddled with debt and even potential bankruptcy due to someone else’s negligence.

Part of the Problem is the Imagery Used to Describe Tort Reform

Part of the problem in West Virginia, and even really nationwide, is the language used to describe both “tort reform” and the way the civil justice system works without it. For starters, there is the very name “tort reform.” Generally speaking in our culture, to “reform” something is to improve or modernize and simplify it. Since there are aspects of our court system that certainly could use a little improvement and streamlining, the idea of “reforming” the system sounds good.

The problem is that “reform” in this case has nothing to do with improvement. A more accurate name for “tort reform” would really be something along the lines of “tort elimination” or “taking away the rights of injured patients and other parties.” Another trick tort “reformers” use is to talk about the scourge of “frivolous” lawsuits. People know that they are paying too much for things like medical care, so when “frivolous” lawsuits are offered up as an excuse for the ridiculous costs, they buy it. This problem is that ‘tort reform” is not needed to eliminate “frivolous” lawsuits. Most jurisdictions if not all already have ethical rules preventing lawyers from bringing frivolous cases. But even if that were not the case, the fact that a plaintiff needs to either convince the defendant that he or she is entitled to compensation or convince a jury acts as a substantial check on frivolous claims.

The talk about frivolous claims also ignores the very real fact that “tort reform” does not just affect frivolous plaintiffs-it also affects seriously injured legitimate plaintiffs. Other language is used to demonize plaintiffs. For example, the Charleston Daily Mail recently reported on some of the imagery used specifically in West Virginia when talking about tort reform. “Reformers” there call the judicial system “bedeviled” or “accursed” in order to demonize those who used the civil justice system to seek out the justice to which they are entitled.

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