Jan 16th, 2007 by ravi
More wonders of tort “reform”

Adam Cohen gives examples in the New York Times on why the justice system indeed does require some reform, but not in the direction demanded by the vociferous right-wing, but in better protecting and compensating individuals and their rights. Cohen starts out with the case of Jack Cline who developed leukaemia from exposure to benzene at his job in Alabama. Here’s what the Alabama Supreme Court had to say:

They Say We Have Too Many Lawsuits? Tell It to Jack Cline – NYT

In a ruling that would have done Kafka proud, the court held that there was never a valid time for Mr. Cline to sue. If he had sued when he was exposed to the benzene, it would have been too early. Alabama law requires people exposed to dangerous chemicals to wait until a “manifest” injury develops. But when his leukemia developed years later, it was too late. Alabama’s statute of limitations requires that suits be brought within two years of exposure.

Cohen goes on to ridicule the sceptre of frivolous lawsuits to identify the real damage inflicted on the justice system:

At the top of industry’s list of tactics is immunity — the rather brazen notion that companies should be shielded from lawsuits no matter how negligently or dishonestly they act. […]

Industries are also winning immunity at the state level, and attracting far less attention. Pharmaceutical companies pushed through a law in Michigan protecting them when their drugs injure or kill people, as long as the drugs were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. There is no reason F.D.A. approval, a deeply flawed process, should be a shield.

When corporations do end up in court, they have lowered the stakes substantially by undermining punitive damages, which have long been one of the main ways that society deters people from unreasonably putting others at risk. The United States Supreme Court struck a major blow against punitive damages a decade ago, ruling that it was unconstitutional for a jury to award $2 million in punitive damages against an auto dealer that knowingly sold a damaged, repainted BMW as new.

Lower federal court judges, many of whom have been screened by the Bush administration for pro-business sympathies, and state court judges, many of whose campaigns were bankrolled by big business, are eagerly joining in. So are state legislatures. Last month Ohio’s legislature voted to cap punitive damages in many cases against paint companies — which have been accused of selling lead-based paint that causes retardation in children — at a paltry $5,000.


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  • Anonymous says:

    1. surfed here from LBO. regarding ‘minimum wage’ i think this is a little bit like ‘global warming’ though less disputed. my impression is that almost every ‘top’ university has an economist who has research papers which support the standard minimum wage argument. (they will also have others who support the epi/card-krueger thesis, that minimums are ok or good.)
    it seems to boil down to politics. if one is pro-business/conservative, then research proves your suspicions.

    my ‘sample’ actually mostly comes from the UC system, where for example at UC irvine newmark has a recent paper showing minimum wages cause unemployment, don’t reduce poverty, etc. But there are others.

    also, for an ‘animal rightist’ one wonders why supporting the rights of mcworkers would be a priority. i guess then maybe they can afford to buy vegetables, so it may work out.

    2. on tort reform. while i agree with the standard nader-ite position (which does not emphasize enough that the anti-tort people are at least as greedy as any plaintiff side lawyers) one issue not mentioned here is ‘class actions’ which seem to be a problem (how much is a question)—some of them do seem frivolous. they are a way for a few lawyers to enrich themselves while handing out small sums to plaintiffs. (even the tobacco lawsuits gave big salaries to the law firms, though a ‘cost/benefit’ analyses may show these large sums were miniscule compared to the whole.)
    (also, they legitimize consumer society, making it look nice, when actually people might better try prosecuting themselves for wasting money on junk.)

    large salaries are likely a social problem, however they are gotten. one can argue some questionably gotten gains are sometimes used to support more worthwhile goals. i know some of the class action lawyers for example later went on, from say suing mcdonald’s over hot coffee, to actually representing people in more dire straits.

    of course, even democracy now was supporting the lawyers at large corporate law firms who represent Gitmo prisoners, but those same firms also represent other interests.

    3. i note you refer to logic archive in your math section. its interesting that one contributor there (anand if i recall) has posted many papers on the archive xxx.lanl.gov disputing many of the received notions in logic. i have seen him debate some of these on logic blogs, where he is dismissed as a crank. some of his ideas however i think are interesting, and actually have some sources of support within professional logicians. (he seems to be an ‘independent scholar’ based in india).
    there are quite a few ‘contrarians’ on the archive. (some seem to be ex-physicts, etc. who in retirment go on to disprove cantor, godel, etc.—not that they are neccesarily wrong, but they arent taken seriously. a few real logicians do make similar argumnebnts at times. one recently tried to show that arithmatic wasm inconsistant, though he relented. )

    the example of platonism (twin prime problem) is interesting. someone (doyle?) said one can’t imagine a 3rd position beyond ‘twin primes run out’ and ‘they don’t’. i guess the other standard response is its ‘undecidable’. one view of this answer is this means its an ill posed problem (does god exist? how many angels are pinheads?)
    others have said one can use ‘undecidable’ arguments to imply that a proposition is either true or false, so they actually decide arguments. (eg Hao Wang, a Godel biographer and inventor of undecidable tilings used by Penrose).
    another approach says one can use the ’embodiement’ idea mentioned (this seems to be an evolutionary version of platonism) and assume various transfinite set cardinalities for the continuum (following Paul Cohen). then the twin prime conjecture will mabey be true for some cardinals, and not for others.
    maybe by voting one can choose which cardinal is our universe, as a shared universal value (or different countries can choose different values for the continuum, and have wars of civilization over these choices—rather than crusading behind religious symbols, one can do it using alephs). or over time, as civilizations evolve, they will follow some hegelian or marxist dialectical process and change their cardinals. (one could write a paper on how this happens based on physics.)

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