Magazine article USA TODAY

Lawsuits Are Drowning America. (Law & Justice)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Lawsuits Are Drowning America. (Law & Justice)

Article excerpt

IN 2001, New York City was hit with a $14,000,000 judgment because a subway train didn't stop in time to avoid hitting someone who was lying on the tracks, apparently trying to commit suicide. That is just the kind of shocking verdict that people dedicated to reforming the U.S. legal system have been talking about for years. Irrational verdicts are merely the beginning of the problem, though.

The fear of possible lawsuits has actually changed the culture of America. Talk to teachers. Keeping discipline is hard when students can threaten that any decision might violate their presumed rights. Forget about putting an arm around an upset second-grader--someone might claim it was an unwanted sexual advance. Visit a playground and look for a seesaw. They are rapidly disappearing, going the way of merry-go-rounds, diving boards, and other joys of childhood.

No court ever held that seesaws are too dangerous, but who will protect the school board if one youngster gets off too soon and the other child breaks an ankle? Even the innocent game of tag has been banned in some New Jersey schools because a pupil might end up getting hurt and a parent might bring a lawsuit. Ministers in some churches are told not to counsel troubled parishioners, because--who knows?--someone might sue if the couple gets divorced.

It wasn't that long ago that Americans didn't think twice about the "risk" of seesaws, or of putting their arm around a crying child. Today, however, they know that any angry person can unilaterally put you through the horror of years of litigation. Even if a jury gets to a sensible verdict--and juries usually do--merely the possibility of being dragged through litigation is enough to prevent Americans from doing what's right.

Almost everyone is aware of someone who has suffered under the threat of litigation. Recently, a doorman I know nervously showed me a complaint in which he was being sued for $1,000,000 for a minor car accident a year ago in which no one went to the hospital. He is having trouble sleeping. Is this justice, or extortion?

The unreliability of justice is causing a meltdown in our common institutions. Health care has suffered a kind of nervous breakdown. The last trauma center in Las Vegas closed in July, 2002, and the next day a trauma victim died. The trauma center later reopened on a temporary basis with legislative protection, but others have not. The maternity ward at Methodist Hospital in south Philadelphia closed and has not reopened. In Nevada, 76% of obstetricians have been sued. Just 78 obstetricians soon will be left in an area that includes Las Vegas, the fastest-growing city in the nation.

A recent Harris poll found that doctors so distrust American justice that they admit to giving medicines that aren't needed, even performing unnecessary invasive procedures, just to have something on the record in case there is a lawsuit. According to some studies, these unnecessary "defensive" procedures may squander over $100,000,000,000 a year. Legal fear is also chilling human relations in medical care. Instead of getting a physician's best judgment, many patients get equivocation. A number of doctors won't communicate with patients by e-mail for fear that a written record might later be used against them. Candor about near misses and mistakes--essential to improving the quality of health care--has been replaced by an incentive to cover up.

Something is terribly wrong here. Americans in all walks of life no longer feel free to do what they know is right. The one thing that almost no one has questioned is that people have a right to sue. That is what they have been taught justice is. Yet, what about the right not to be sued?

We forget sometimes that law is important in a free society. Law is supposed to make us feel comfortable doing what is right and nervous doing what is wrong. Today, Americans feel nervous doing almost anything.

There is a terrible flaw in our modern legal philosophy. …

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