Legal Reform and Common Sense
Rarely do national debates on serious subjects bring in McDonald's and the Girl Scouts, but action by the House last week on changes in the legal system included those everyday examples and more. Their inclusion was appropriate, to remind everyone what the result may be. If the revisions make it through the Senate in similar form, they will seriously restrict the ability of Americans to use the courts to recover damages when they have been wronged. The restrictions go too far.
In the House Republicans' Contract With America, the issue was called the "Common Sense Legal Reform Act" - a brilliant if misleading label designed to pre-empt any opposition. How could anyone oppose common sense? The truth, of course, is far more complicated than any slogan or quick fix.
The premise is simple: Too many people win too much money by filing too many lawsuits that have too little merit. The remedies are equally straightforward. Legislation passed by the House would limit punitive damages, both in dollar amounts and in the types of injuries at issue; would pressure parties to settle without a trial by requiring losers to pay legal fees for both sides in many cases; and would make it more difficult for investors to win damages from brokers they suspect of misconduct.
To make their case, proponents trotted out American icons like McDonald's and the Girl Scouts. Remember the outrage stirred by the woman in New Mexico who won $2.7 million when she was scalded by a cup of hot McDonald's coffee? In Washington, D.C., a business group began planning a television commercial showing a Girl Scout selling cookies door to door, trying to make the point that the organization has to sell 87,000 boxes of cookies each year just to pay for its liability insurance. …