I have spent the past 5 years in Sweden — yes, it is a heck of a commute from Stockholm to Tampa. When people in Sweden ask me what I do, I answer: “I am a trial lawyer.” The response: “Oh, yeah. Tobacco lawsuits, right?” They don’t understand how our system works. They ask why we need to have such lawsuits. Then I explain to them that we are not so fortunate — or unfortunate, depending on your perspective — as they are. We only provide health care to the old and the destitute, not everyone. We don’t have the same social welfare benefits. Nor do we have the same 57% tax bracket, thank God!
They can never understand how a country as wealthy as ours can allow its citizens to live under a bridge before the government will offer help. Well, as Eric Turkewitz puts it, the proponents of “tort reform” need to remember:
"We are faced with a choice as to whether we let parties duke things out privately or let the government come in with support. A nation can have one or the other. But what we can’t have, is both the stripping away of private rights at the same time that we have limited government support. That is not the model used by any industrialized nation that I know of."
Much of the debate about “tort reform” centers around the cost of personal injury claims and their lawsuits. Many people that are injured due to the negligence of others have no health insurance and no disability insurance. If we eliminate our tort system, who then pays? Well, in America, the injured pay first. Then, once they are completely broke and have no other assets, the cost of their medical care is shifted to the taxpayer via Medicaid.
In Sweden, the social welfare system works very well. The taxpayers support it both politically and with their wallets. As the forces of “tort reform” press harder and harder to limit a person’s ability to recover the cost of their medical care and lost wages from the individuals or businesses who caused their injuries, remember: ultimately the cost of these harms and losses will be borne by someone. Should it be the people responsible for the loss, or taxpayers?
If you say the taxpayers, then, as Turkewitz points out, if you eliminate tort claims, our system is untenable without the social welfare afforded to the citizens of the rest of the industrialized world:
"If we close the court house door on people by making it more difficult to proceed, then what happens to those already injured? Well, they absorb the costs themselves until they are poor enough for the minimal social service programs that we have and then the taxpayer picks up the tab. And they remain poor, having now been victimized first by the negligence of others and then again by being forced to bear the financial burden."
We simply cannot ask hardworking Americans to bear that burden without jumping on the 57% tax wagon. So, tort reformers: be careful what you wish for.
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