BP & Tort Reform

Here’s the latest: a woman suing Google because, while following a recommended route for walking, she was hit by a car.

Ridiculous? Of course. And don’t worry—Google will be fine.

Filing a lawsuit is easy. It should be, as a matter of policy, because we have a strong interest in encouraging people to resolve disputes within the judicial system rather than in the streets with knives and guns. Getting a frivolous lawsuit dismissed is relatively easy, too, and the system is hardly overwhelmed.

Tort reform was sold to voters as protection against frivolous lawsuits tying up the system and restricting commerce.

Tort reform, in fact, is a gift to corporations, limiting their liability even when their behavior is wildly irresponsible, reckless, and dangerous.

And here comes BP.

Louisiana enacted very aggressive tort reform laws in the mid-90s. Texas and plenty of other states did, too, gutting consumer protections in the process.

Politicians can flap their jaws about making BP pay now because those same politicians know that actually getting a court to give a final ruling on financial damages that amount to anything more than a nuisance payment for BP simply won’t happen.

BP knows that, too.

Again, look to the Exxon Valdez incident. It took two decades for many of those lawsuits to resolve, by which time Exxon was paying damages with the kind of money that amounts to something like a day’s worth of profits from 2 wells. If that much.

And that ain’t much to Exxon.

So much needs to change that it can seem overwhelming. We have to start, however, or we’ll never get there. The next time someone talks to you about a frivolous  lawsuit – coffee that was too hot, or Google Maps giving bad directions – talk to them about the need for laws that hold major corporations accountable for serious and egregious harms. Talk to them about the oil spill. Talk to them about undoing the damage caused by tort reform before the next disaster strikes.

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