Tort reform. Big companies like Hess and their attorneys are clamoring for tort reform. Corporate defense attorney Britain Bryant recently gave a talk to the Chamber of Commerce in which he called for more tort reform in the Virgin Islands. Mr. Bryant presented misinformation about tort reform, including that it would lower insurance premiums. Tort reform is an important issue affecting every man, woman, and child in the Virgin Islands and it is important that we take an intelligent look at this topic.
What is "tort reform?" "Tort" is a legal term used to describe a wrongful act for which relief may be obtained. The objective of tort reform is to:
1. make it more difficult for people to file lawsuits,
2. and place a limit, or cap, on the amount of money that a person can receive in a lawsuit.
Tort reform will make it harder for you to sue a company that injures you or your family, or that in some way does a wrongful act to you. In short, tort reform seeks to limit your rights as an American. Insurance companies and big corporations are eager to see tort reform enacted and are the largest contributors to the tort reform movement. Why? Because they don't want to be sued. Tort reform will allow these corporations to sell dangerous products, pollute the environment, discriminate in their hiring practices, commit other illegal deeds, and still have little or no liability for committing such acts.
But we must also oppose tort reform because it will be especially hurtful to these U.S. Virgin Islands – islands populated largely by Blacks and Hispanics.
Racial and ethnic minorities have been shown to be the most frequent victims of discrimination, medical malpractice, and other injustices. Tort reform limits people of color's rights to seek justice and remedy for wrongs done against them. The non-profit, non-partisan Center for Justice and Democracy has stated that tort reform is "without question, racially discriminatory." (1) In fact, the American Tort Reform Association – the primary agent of the tort reform movement – has concentrated its efforts on districts where minorities make up a significant portion of the population.
In 2004, after studying every jurisdiction in America, the American Tort Reform Association released a report identifying 18 jurisdictions where it hoped to enact significantly more tort reform legislation. It called these places "judicial hellholes." In 15 of those 18 jurisdictions, people of color make up most of the population. (2) Clearly, people of color are being targeted for tort reform.
Supporters of tort reform claim that it will lead to lower insurance rates. This is completely false. According to an extensive study conducted by the Center for Justice and Democracy, tort reform does NOT improve "the affordability or availability of liability insurance for businesses or professions."(3)
Weiss Ratings Inc. is an independent rating company that evaluates thousands of insurers, banks, brokers, and other institutions. Weiss Ratings receives no compensation from any of the companies it rates. In 2003, Weiss Ratings performed an extensive study in which it analyzed 12 years of data on the insurance industry. The study found that "caps have been ineffective in reducing medical malpractice premiums for medical professionals" because while it led to some savings in payouts for the insurance companies, "insurers have not passed those savings on to physicians."(4)
Numerous states have enacted tort reform and yet seen insurance rates continue to rise. In fact, one such place is the US Virgin Islands. Yes, we already have tort reform here in the U.S.V.I., and we've had it for years! In fact, the V.I. currently has some of the strictest tort reform laws in the country. In the Virgin Islands, verdicts against health providers are capped at $250,000(5). Verdicts in automobile tort cases for personal suffering are capped at $75,000(6). And verdicts against the VI Government are capped at $25,000(7).
Yet some are clamoring for even more tort reform. Now, let me ask you this: Have your insurance rates gone down? Have you ever seen any reduction in your insurance premiums? The answer is no.
High insurance rates are not caused by "frivolous" lawsuits or "runaway" jury verdicts. A judge has the power to immediately throw out any lawsuit that he or she deems to be frivolous or any lawsuit verdict that he or she deems to be excessive. More importantly, plaintiffs' attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. This means that the attorney works on behalf of the plaintiff for free. The attorney receives no money unless he or she wins the plaintiff's lawsuit. Thus, attorneys have no incentive to file frivolous lawsuits. The idea that frivolous lawsuits and runaway verdicts are overburdening the justice system and crippling businesses is an idea that has been fabricated and perpetuated by the insurance industry and self-interested corporations.
Tort reform does not lower insurance rates or health care costs. What tort reform does do is limit individual rights and protections, making it easier for corporations to abuse and run roughshod over the public. As you know, here in the V.I. we unfortunately already have medical malpractice and automobile accident tort reform. We also have severe tort limitation on lawsuits against the government. Now, certain bodies are attempting to limit your civil rights even further by extending tort reform to other areas.
Call your senators right now. Tell your senators that you do not want your legal rights to be infringed upon by greedy corporations. Tell your senators and other elected officials that you do NOT support tort reform. Those that support tort reform are attempting to underhandedly take away your civil rights and legal protections. Don't let them do it.
Lee J. Rohn, Esq.
Editor's Note: Attorney Lee J. Rohn is the founding partner of The Law Offices of Rohn & Cameron, LLC- the largest plaintiff-oriented law firm in the Virgin Islands. She is an active community member and also sponsors a summer camp program that sends 500 local children to camp each summer.
(1)Center for Justice and Democracy. Tort Reform and Racial Prejudice: A Troublesome Connection. http://centerjd.org/race.pdf
(3)Center for Justice and Democracy. Premium Deceit: The Failure of Tort Reform to Cut Insurance Prices. http://www.centerjd.org/air/PremiumDeceit.pdf
(4)Medical Malpractice Caps Fail to Prevent Premium Increases, According to Weiss Ratings Study. Weiss Ratings, Inc. Revised June 3, 2003. http://www.weissratings.com/News/Ins_General/20030602pc.htm
(5)US Virgin Islands Code. Title 27, Section 166b — VI Health Care Provider Malpractice Act.
(6)US Virgin Islands Code. Title 20, Section 555.
(7)US Virgin Islands Code. Title 33, Section 3411.