Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review June 10, 2003 / 10 Sivan, 5763

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Welcome to Sue City, U.S.A. | Every day in America, someone pays a price for the enormous inflation of rights over responsibilities. The pregnant woman nearly killed by a stool hurled into the street from a high school's sixth-floor window in New York is not just a case of another unruly school. It is also an example of the consequences of a mass retreat from responsibility--one fomented by the way our legal system has evolved.

Teachers who are firm with badly behaved students know all too well that they run the risk of being sued by parents who smell money more than they seek justice. Nobody can be sure that reason will prevail since juries produce dramatically different conclusions from one case to the next. Doctors are so worried about protecting themselves from potential lawsuits that they prescribe medicines and order unnecessary tests and procedures that amount to an estimated $100 billion a year. Why? So they have a legal defense if they're sued. Some doctors, unwilling to play that game, have abandoned the practice of medicine. This is not the rule of law. It is the fear of law. And it affects our lives in profound ways.

Anyone, it seems, can haul anybody into court for just about anything. Many are tempted to play because the entry stakes are low and the rewards, potentially, are huge. Some examples of the "heads I win, tails I sue" mentality, encouraged by absurd jury awards: A disabled man sues a Florida strip club for not providing equal-access views of the stage; families of illegal immigrants who died trying to cross a desert from Mexico sue the United States for not providing water; a woman throws a soft drink at her boyfriend at a restaurant, then slips on the floor she wet and breaks her tailbone. She sues. Bingo--a jury says the restaurant owes her $100,000! A woman tries to sneak through a restroom window at a nightclub to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge. She falls, knocks out two front teeth, and sues. A jury awards her $12,000 for dental expenses.

Eager beavers. With such decisions, our society is not merely rewarding cynical opportunists. It is punishing innocent people like the owners of the restaurant and the nightclub. It punishes job seekers when their employers refuse to provide references because the litigious have sued in the past. It punishes troubled marriages when ministers abandon counseling because a lawsuit might ensue if the couple winds up divorcing later.

The right to sue has been exploited by lawyers. They can gamble on taking cases on a contingency basis because they need only 1 win in 10 to score that big judgment that will make up for the other losses. Many plaintiffs are eager to join the gamble because juries are so unpredictable, especially when faced with complex scientific issues. Then, too, there's the fact that many defendants simply refuse to run the risk of trial. There may be no credible evidence that a defendant's product resulted in injury, but a bruising courtroom fight can result in so much reputational and collateral damage that many manufacturers opt to settle instead of fight.

Litigation has become our national pastime. Look at programs like Judge Judy, Court TV, and the People's Court. They capitalize on the public's fury at a legal system apparently run amok--a "system" characterized by frivolous lawsuits, manipulative lawyers, rapacious clients, and outrageous legal fees (prompting one wag to note, "One rarely sees a fat client or a thin lawyer").

The Bush administration is committed to tort reform. It has proposed capping jury "pain and suffering" awards in medical malpractice suits at $250,000, limiting punitive damages and lawyers' contingency fees. Democrats oppose these proposals, on the grounds that no restrictions should be placed on any injured American's right to sue. We can all agree that one injured medical patient is one too many. But one falsely accused doctor is one too many, as well. Somehow, we must restore a sense of responsibility, and of proportion. To do so, we must create a new system of medical justice. Clearly, we want to distinguish between good care and bad care, but juries have limited appreciation of the scientific issues and are not much helped by expert witnesses endlessly contradicting each other. We could, instead, rely on independent panels answerable to the court. We might also penalize those who bring frivolous lawsuits, have damages set by judges rather than by juries, and make the losing party pay the legal expenses of the winner.

Reforms will not come easily, given that trial lawyers have become the most powerful special interest group in American politics, bankrolling politicians, especially Democrats. But tort litigation is costing us all. The current estimate is $200 billion a year, and rising. As author John Naisbitt said in Megatrends, "Lawyers are like beavers. They get in the mainstream and dam it up."

This is one dam we must dynamite--now.

Like this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


05/05/03: America's next critical test
04/22/03: The challenge of success
04/15/03: Shape up or step aside
04/08/03: The latest in reality TV is
04/02/03: Chirac and Saddam's thugs are two of a kind
03/26/03: War by new rules
03/05/03: The high price of waiting
02/14/03: Needed: fast fiscal action
02/03/03: Clear and compelling proof
01/24/03: Midnight for Baghdad
01/14/03: They should have said...
12/24/02: Who finances the fanatics?
12/19/02: Put-up or shut-up time
12/09/02: Sheep, wolves, and reality
11/21/02: Curing the uncommon cold
11/12/02: Everybody has the right to be wrong but the Dems have been abusing the privilege
11/05/02: Force vs. fanaticism
10/30/02: Land of the sinking sun
10/22/02: No more cat and mouse
10/15/02: And pigs will fly
10/07/02: A shameful contagion
09/26/02: Calling a madman's number
09/23/02: Our rainbow underclass
09/13/02: Why America must act
09/04/02: After bubbles, a double dip?
08/20/02: No time for equivocation
08/06/02: No time for politics
07/30/02: Getting off the dime
07/17/02: What scandal cannot dim
06/18/02: Time to crack down: Where is the outrage?
06/05/02: The next new thing
04/30/02: Roller-coaster nation
04/25/02: A critical tipping point
04/15/02: Israel's endgame will impact the free world
03/21/02: In the face of pure evil
03/14/02: A man on a mission
03/07/02: Land of the Sinking Sun
02/12/02: Speaking truth about energy
01/15/02: Putting our house in order
01/12/02: Talking points for 2002
12/24/01: The shape of things to come
12/11/01: Finally, a clarity of vision
12/04/01: Apocalypse now
11/26/01: The Big Apple's core
11/06/01: What it will take to win
10/22/01: Getting the mayor's message
10/08/01: A remedy for repair
10/01/01: A question of priorities
09/26/01: Our mission, our moment
09/11/01: Running the asylum
08/29/01: Hail, brave consumer
06/14/01: Blackouts --- or blackmail?
06/01/01: A time to reap --- and sow
05/25/01: A question of confidence
05/18/01: A question of confidence
05/04/01: Making the grade
04/26/01: The caribou conundrum
04/19/01: Chinese boomerang
03/27/01: The man of the moment
03/20/01: The Fed must be bold
03/15/01: Japan on the brink
03/01/01: Rethinking the next war
02/09/01: The education paradox
01/08/01: How the bottom fell out
01/03/01: Quipping in the new year
12/20/00: A time for healing
11/13/00: The need for legitimacy
10/30/00: Arafat's bloody cynicism
10/18/00: Arafat torches peace
10/03/00: A great step backward
09/08/00: The Perfect Storm
08/29/00: Don't blow the surplus
08/15/00: Voting for grown-ups
08/01/00: Arafat's lack of nerve
07/17/00: Can there be a new peace between old enemies? Or will new enemies regress to an old state of war?
07/11/00: A time to celebrate
06/19/00: A bit of straight talk
06/08/00: Using hate against Israel
05/26/00: Is the Federal Reserve trigger-happy?
04/18/00: Tensions on the 'Net
04/13/00: A paranoid power
03/10/00: Fuel prices in the red zone
02/25/00: Web wake-up call
02/18/00: Back to the future
01/21/00: Whistling while we work
01/11/00: Loose lips, fast quips
12/23/99: The times of our lives
12/14/99: Hey, big spender
11/18/99: Fountain of Youth
11/04/99: An impossible partner
10/14/99: A nation divided
10/05/99: India at center stage
09/21/99: Along with good cops, we need a better probation system
09/08/99: Though plundered and confused, Russia can solve its problems
08/31/99: The military should spend more on forces and less on facilities
08/05/99: Squandering the surplus
07/06/99: More than ever, America's unique promise is a reality
06/24/99: The time has come to hit the brakes on affirmative action
06/15/99: America should take pride in honoring its responsibilities
06/02/99: The Middle Kingdom shows its antagonistic side
05/11/99: Technology's transforming power is giving a lift to everything
05/04/99: The big game gets bigger
04/30/99: On Kosovo, Russia talked loudly and carried a small stick
04/21/99: No time to go wobbly
04/13/99: The Evil of two lessers

© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman