Can tort reform be accomplished while protecting the public's rights to petition the courts?
Whether public welfare would be threatened by tort reform is entirely a matter of the details written into whatever legislation is passed intended to minimize the number of civil suits filed in the United States or to limit the amount of damages that can be imposed as a result of a civil suit. To paraphrase an old saying, ‘the devil would be in the details.’ Tort reform in and of itself would not necessarily diminish the public’s ability to file civil suits or to collect damages when successful in prosecuting such a suit. Should legislation be passed that does successfully limit the types of suits that can be filed, and/or limit the amount that can be collected in damages, then the potential for a diminishment in the public’s ability to protect itself against faulty products, careless behavior, or malicious conduct could be realized.
There are multiple types of torts that can filed: negligent, intentional, and strict liability. Tort reform would not necessarily cover all three types, or could cover all three but adopt different approaches to each. Intentional torts, which involve, as the name suggests, the deliberate infliction of harm, would not necessarily be the target of efforts at tort reform. When tort reform is discussed, it is usually in the context of defective products or the imposition of financial penalties that appear excessive. Sometimes, perceptions of a major discrepancy between level of harm and amount of damages rewarded to a plaintiff can feed a public desire to rein in the existing civil justice system, which allows for such “excesses.” As noted, however, tort reform can only diminish public safety if legislation intended to prevent “excessive” damages allows such a diminishment to occur.