In an article for the Atlantic, legal analyst Andrew Cohen calls tort reform anti-democratic, but ingeniously marketed by corporate America:
Supporters of tort reform, invariably corporatistsand others who believe in this self-defeating supply-side notion of justice, have scammed or otherwise brainwashed millions of Americans into thinking that tort reform will save them from despicable “trial lawyers,” a convenient target group in this ever-litigious world. But no ‘trial attorney” ever went into the jury room and voted for a large verdict against a greedy corporation which purposely hid health risks from its customers. No “trial judge” ever put a gun to a foreperson’s head and made that man or woman sign off on a big reward against an environmental polluter or tobacco company or maker of unsafe toys.
Personal experience in talking with clients and prospective jurors in voir dire during trials makes me conclude that average citizens do not understand tort reform. Most people think that tort reform addresses frivolous lawsuits instead of lawsuits involving the worst possible conduct. People do not understand that:
It takes control over damage awards in many civil cases away from local judges and juries and gives them to state politicians, who often are just shills for their corporate campaign contributors and lobbyists. It protects corporations from punishment for their worst excesses. It diminishes good incentives for corporate carefulness and increases bad incentives for shoddy work and services.
In order to sell tort reform, corporate America applies a bait and switch commonly referred to as a “straw man” argument. Barry and Soccio define the straw man attack as follows in their book Practical Logic 104:
The straw man fallacy is an argument that so alters a position that the result is easier to attack than the original and yet claims that it has provided grounds for attacking the original.
Corporate America claims that tort reform is the solution for frivolous lawsuits. But “frivolous lawsuits” is their straw man. They use frivolous lawsuits as their straw man because what they really desire is their offered solution: damages caps that reduce their liability for wrongdoing.
Why do tort reform’s proponents push a solution that does not apply to the “problem” of frivolous lawsuits? Because frivolous lawsuits is not really the problem for corporate America. They can squash a frivolous lawsuit like a bug. What they can’t squash without damages caps is their liability exposure for terrible conduct such as covering up a product’s dangerous defect. And they know that the public wouldn’t go along with it if the public knew the truth.
The reason that people do not understand tort reform is because proponents of tort reform do not want them to. Tort reform proponents invariably talk about merit-less lawsuits when selling tort reform.
So they pull a bait and switch using a frivolous lawsuits straw man. They talk about despicable trial lawyers and frivolous lawsuits and push through damages caps that don’t even address their stated “problem.” It’s a ploy—but it’s a smart one to get what they want.