Tort reform, consumer rights both important

Published 2:32 am Wednesday, October 23, 2002

By By ROBERT BLANKENSHIP - Managing Editor
When it comes to Alabama's civil courtrooms, it is no secret that there is room for improvements. Lawsuit abuse and tort reform have been hot topics in this state for some time. But, like rewriting the Alabama constitution, tax reform and education, the politicians we send to Montgomery seem to care little about the problem.
Recently, the American Tort Reform Association placed Alabama on its short list of "America's Judicial Hellholes." These "hellholes," according to ATRA President Tiger Joyce, are civil court trial jurisdictions where rules of balance and fair play under the law do not apply.
Counties in Alabama given "dishonorable mention" status as judicial hellholes are Choctaw, Clark, Barbour, Macon and Greene counties. Also mentioned were Lowndes, Sumter and Washington. These counties have a reputation that stretches across the nation to those who study lawsuit abuse.
The above mentioned counties also have something else in common. Some of them are among the poorest counties in the state. While these trial lawyers line their pockets with lawsuit money, the average citizen is probably wondering why no new businesses or industries are moving into their area.
While it is easy to point at the lawyers as being the source of the problem, we should remember that it is ultimately the judges who decide whether a case has merit and will go to jury.
While Alabama may be a "judicial hellhole," there is something to be said for protecting people's rights and access to the civil court system. Unfortunately, the lawsuit abuse we have seen and read about has many feeling that people who file a lawsuit are 'looking for a payout.' The truth is, there are legitimate reasons to sue and sometimes a business should be required to pay damages.
While the ATRA was listing Alabama as a "judicial hellhole," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was also busy producing television ads. These ads talk about how much consumers pay each day due to lawsuit abuse. These ads state that an average family of four pays $1,900 a year as a result of phony lawsuits. They have even called these higher prices a "Lawsuit Abuse Tax."
I have to believe that these ads are, at the very least, misleading. The ads make no distinction between "phony lawsuits" and legitimate lawsuits where businesses should have paid damages. Alabama Watch, a consumer advocacy group, is probably close to correct in its claim that the group paying for the ads cares more about the November elections than they do the average Alabama family.
The truth is we do need tort reform. Judges should be held accountable for allowing frivolous lawsuits to make it to jury. Trial lawyers should not get a free reign in our civil court system.
But, while we have become accustomed to second guessing those who file lawsuits, it is important that Alabama comsumers maintain their rights to protect themselves. I wouldn't want to be the one to tell a family whose loved one was permanently brain damaged due to a rollover in a Ford Explorer that they have no rights because it may cost the rest of us $500 each time we buy a new car.

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