One of the ideas that George Bush ran for office on, that he hasn't had both the time and the political capital at the same time to even work on seriously, was an idea that goes by the label, "tort reform." Here's the capsule summary of the background to it. If anyone does something that intentionally or negligently harms you or your property in such a way as to cost you money, damage or destroy your property, or cause you serious injury, you're entitled to sue them in a civil court for whatever it costs to make it right again and to replace what they damaged, plus whatever it cost you to sue them for it. That's basic law. (Such a case, like all civil court cases, is called a "tort.") If what they did wrecked your life or caused immense pain or suffering even in the short term, then the jury can recommend that the person or company that hurt you also pay what the consider to be fair economic value for your pain and suffering. And on top of both of those, if the jury feels that what they did was so heinous that an additional penalty on top of economic damages, and pain and suffering, is what it will take to deter them or anybody else from doing the same kind of intentional negligent harm and just writing it off as cost of doing business, they can also impose what are called punitive damages. You probably already knew all of that part of it, although if you're not from the US you may not have known our legal jargon for it.
The idea behind "tort reform" is that juries are handing out such huge awards in "pain and suffering" cases, and such huge awards for punitive damages, that the cost of paying off such suits is wrecking the ability of American companies to compete internationally or even to stay alive, including the ones who just commit innocent mistakes and even some of the ones that haven't actually hurt anybody, but who just have a hard time getting juries to sympathize with them or their rights. The tort reform movement thinks that juries are doing this as a pure socialist form of wealth redistribution; robbing the rich to give to the poor. If you ask them, they'll give you all kinds of horror stories and all kinds of supportive statistics. On the other side of the argument, which is usually the Democratic Party side and even more than that (unsurprisingly) the side of the lawyers who represent the victims in such cases (in American legalese, "the plaintiffs' bar"), is a straightforward appeal to the rule of law, to the literal wording of the Constitution which says that people are entitled to file such suits, and to faith in the court system and trial by jury. This fails to persuade the Republicans, and the defense lawyers for some of the corporations who have been sued, to whom it looks like runaway juries are being used as a tool of extortion to get innocent companies to pay huge damages, to settle out of court the claims of people who weren't even actually injured.
And while all of this arguing has been going on, for several decades now, without a solution in sight, somebody actually went out and solved the fricking problem. I never got around to mentioning this at the time, but it was written up in the New York Times for October 9th, 2005: Jonathan Glater, "The Tort Wars, at a Turning Point." See, here's the deal. The poster child for tort reform is asbestos. Inhaling even tiny amounts of fibrous asbestos can lead to a severe health problem called asbestosis, and if asbestosis goes undiagnosed or lasts long enough it can lead to an otherwise very rare and very deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma. And a long time back, lawyers for people who mined the stuff were able to prove that companies who were mining the stuff, and companies who were using the stuff, knew about asbestosis for a very long time, covered it up, and did nothing to protect the people who were exposed to the stuff, which killed lots of them. That's classic negligence, and unsurprisingly, companies convicted of it ended up having to pay huge penalties to the family left behind, and to the people who hadn't died yet but were surely going to die of this ugly and painful cancer. So much so that law firms went out and aggressively advertised for such people, and set about researching the pasts of anybody who had asbestosis or mesothelioma to figure out which of their employers exposed them to asbestos. (Somewhere along the line, to my aggravation, the distinction between solid chunks of asbestos and ground or fibrous asbestos in the air got lost, and perfectly safe solid asbestos also got labeled as hazardous. But that's an only barely related issue.)
So far, companies have paid out claims for asbestosis and mesothelioma totaling an estimated seven billion US dollars, covering 700,000 people supposedly injured people, who paid about a third of that money right back as "contingency fees" to the lawyers who took their claims and filed suit for them. Some of those claims were huge class action claims, where to defend themselves the companies would have had to do complete medical histories on all 700,000 of those people and prove that they didn't have mesothelioma and prove that they didn't have asbestosis or prove that their client never exposed each individual one of those 700,000 people to asbestos. That's some expensive litigation. Companies could have done so, and if they had found that claims were filed fraudulently, they could have tried to recoup their legal costs ... but that would have meant suing poor people, which is always a waste of time.
Then, using that precedent, we have a "new mesothelioma," a "new asbestos:" silicosis, a lung disease that's acquired from chronic exposure to ground silica or silica dust in the air. The lawyers for the affected people were already assembling another $70B worth of huge class action lawsuits -- which now aren't going to happen. What happened? Modern computers. The defendants asked for the first 10,000 names and medical histories ... and then ran them against a database of people who'd been paid off already for asbestosis and/or mesothelioma. Not all of them matched, of course; there really are some people who have been exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust and really did get sick because of it. But here's what torpedoed the whole lawsuit industry. When they crunched their way through those first 10,000 claims they found that not only had a high percentage of them already gotten paid off as asbestos plaintiffs, but that an amazingly high number of them had the same couple of doctors, who were the same doctors who diagnosed them first as having asbestosis, then as having silicosis but not asbestosis. Ninety percent of the cases came from two doctors, who now have their own laywers ... to defend them against criminal charges of criminal fraud and perjury.
See? No socialism. No wealth redistribution. No need to cap pain and suffering awards, or punitive awards, for the people who actually were injured. Just straightforward criminal fraud, which (thank the gods) has finally been caught, and the people involved are being punished. Problem solved. So, Republicans? Leave the non-fraudulent cases, the people actually injured in horrific intentional or negligent ways, alone. They've suffered enough; they don't deserve to be victimized by you all over again by denying them their honest due, their honest rights in an honest court of law."
(Somehow I just know that cuglas will have something to say about this.)