Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, is on the warpath against our
civil justice system. Fully supporting Scott’s proposed tort reforms
is an organization called the Florida Justice Reform Institute.
The Institute’s title makes it sound like an academic think tank.
It is not.
The Institute was formed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce in 2005. It
claims that its mission includes fighting “wasteful civil litigation
through legislation,” which basically means changing our judicial
system in a way which favors big business. The Institute’s partners
listed on its website include groups like the Florida Petroleum Council,
Florida Banker’s Association, and Florida Trucking Association.
Among the Institute’s many complaints is that Florida’s court
system is an example of “broken justice” which “ranks 42nd in the nation.” This is a pretty serious accusation, so it’s
worth taking a moment to understand exactly what it means.
First, Florida’s ranking of 42nd is not the result of a university study or judge’s poll. Rather,
it comes straight from the Institute’s national counterpart, the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform. As it turns
out, the ranking represents nothing more than the collective opinions
of corporate lawyers, along with senior executives “who indicated
they are knowledgeable about litigation matters” and whose companies
make “at least $100 million in annual revenues.”
One could reasonably ask whether the opinion of this tiny sliver of the
American ruling class should be considered an objective evaluation of
anything. It’s also reasonable to ask whether drastic changes in
law should be made based on their wishes. In fact, common sense suggests
the interests of this elite group may differ a great deal from the interests
of middle class Americans.
Furthermore, the complaints that members of the corporate elite make about
the justice system are often misleading. To give just one example, a task
force was recently convened by Governor Scott to study regulatory reform.
A subgroup of that team assigned to consider tort reform made recommendations
to Scott when he came into office. As part of its findings, the task force
presented a graph showing that case filings in Florida circuit courts
have increased by 52-percent in about the last 10 years. Naturally, the
suggestion was that the increase validates the “judicial hellhole” label.
However, when one really examines the data, the story is quite different.
The increase in court filings shown was for
allcases filed in Florida’s circuit court system. This includes criminal
cases, family law cases, wills (probate) cases, and civil cases of all
varieties. The increase in the
total number of cases filed in court is in no way an indication that more personal
injury or death cases are being filed.
When one looks at civil cases alone, it becomes even more clear that personal
injury claims are not causing a “lawsuit crisis.” An analysis
of Florida civil cases by category shows that while mortgage foreclosures
have increased greatly, other civil case filings have not.
In reality, on a per capita basis, tort lawsuit filings were down 18.8-percent
from April 2000 to April 2009 across the board. Filings of every individual
category of tort claim decreased per capita in that time period as well.
Specifically, medical malpractice cases were down 49.4-percent, product
liability cases were down 76.6-percent, auto negligence cases were down
4.3-percent, and other negligence cases were down 17.7-percent.
With statistics like these, the Institute and corporate America should
already be thrilled with their “progress.” But instead of
acknowledging what the data really shows, they continue to present it
in a misleading way to further their agenda. Keep that in mind when Governor
Scott and his corporate allies talk about closing the courthouse doors.