News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2005


Change court system, but retain civil rights

A good system of justice must maintain a balance between individual rights and social costs. The civil justice system in Alabama has lost that balance. The system successfully protects civil rights, but at an enormous social cost.

It is time for state and federal legislatures to revisit the issue of whether our judicial system needs to be reigned in.

The rhetoric is so loud that it is easy to miss the issues. The victims of a judicial system unleashed, typically large corporations, scream with expensive fury that small businesses cannot bear the burden of Alabama jury verdicts. Trial lawyers use a portion of their overflowing war chests to scream back that corporate interests are already getting away with murder. Eliminate the financial incentive for plaintiffs' lawyers to pursue corporate accountability, they say, and individual rights will disappear.

As usual, both sides overstate their positions.

An unsavory result of free enterprise is that corporations regularly, if not always explicitly, weigh human tragedy against corporate profits. The classic example is Ford Motor Co.'s refusal to redesign gas tanks of their Pinto in the 1960s. Sure people keep dying, but will our liability on the few wrongful death claims exceed our loss if we recall the vehicles?

The current system also requires corporations to weigh trivial damage to consumers or stockholders. Did that insider sale deprive stock buyers of 25 cents? If so, the perpetrator may pay millions. Some of those millions even slide through plaintiffs' lawyers' hands into the hands of those deprived of their quarter.

Our increasing understanding of economics, however, reminds us that the litigation cost to a producer generally shifts to its customers.

Trial lawyers make great punching bags, in part because many deserve the blows. As we make legislative changes, however, we need to keep in mind that no justice system can function without a champion for those who are injured.

We need to make changes. Trial lawyers benefit too much, creating inefficiencies that bog down the entire judicial system.

That means state and federal legislators need to take a moment to ignore the self-interested pleas of big business and lawyers alike, and aim for a system that protects individual rights while minimizing social costs.

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