Blake Dickson wrote the following column for Center for a Just Society. The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy.
Two features of American life that distinguish us from much of the rest of the world, and define us as a free nation, are our democratic electoral process and our justice system. The civil part of our system of justice is guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution which provides that disputes involving money damages of $20 or more will be resolved by a jury of our peers. Many politicians who consider themselves “conservative,” and even call themselves “constitutionalists,” often express support for “tort reform.” The end goal of such so-called “reform” is to rob juries of their discretion to make decisions based on the evidence in each case.
I wonder what would happen to a politician who took the podium and advocated his support for a plan to rob the citizens of the United States of their right to vote. I doubt he would be an elected official for very long. I doubt that someone who espoused such “reform” would have much chance of being elected in the first place. I have never heard a politician suggest that American citizens are not capable of sitting on a criminal jury and making a decision about the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, even in the most severe cases where the possible penalty is life imprisonment or even execution. And yet many politicians espouse the notion that we cannot trust the average American citizen to sit on a civil jury and determine whether or not an individual who has been harmed or killed by the negligence of another is entitled to compensation, and if so, how much.
The Tea Party has recently gained ascendance in American political life. Their name refers to the Boston Tea Party, an act of defiance against the British, by people who came to this country to escape oppression and establish a new world where the main principle was freedom. What was it that the early explorers and early settlers of this country were seeking? What was it that the Founding Fathers sought to escape, in the formation of this country? They sought to escape the tyranny of both royalty and the wealthy ruling class of the old world. They sought freedom. They sought to create a world where a man’s success was limited only by his ability and his work ethic, not by his family name nor his birthright. And in order to ensure this vision, they instituted a constitutional republic whereby the leaders were elected by the people. They also instituted a justice system where criminal allegations and civil disputes were decided by a jury of one’s peers.
Legislating arbitrary caps on the damages that can be awarded to injured people or the families of those who have been killed by neglect, deprives jurors of the right and duty to make decisions in individual cases based on the evidence before them. Why can’t ordinary citizens make a decision as to whether or not a defendant was negligent? Why can’t ordinary citizens make a decision as to whether or not an individual was injured or killed by the negligence of another? Why can’t ordinary citizens determine the proper amount that would compensate someone injured or the family of someone killed, for their loss caused by negligence? The civil justice system in this country is exceptional. It has worked well for over 200 years. Anyone who supports tort reform seeks to dismantle this system and replace it with arbitrary limits that have nothing to do with justice or an appropriate evaluation of an individual case.
The Founding Fathers considered the civil jury a necessary check on the power of the government and on the power of the ruling classes. This fundamental American principle has been widely accepted throughout our history. King George III’s efforts to restrict jury trials was cited in the Declaration of Independence as one of the grievances that justified breaking away from England. Thomas Jefferson said that the right to a civil jury is “justice by the people”. Teddy Roosevelt said the jury “protects us from the harsh hand of government”. King George III’s efforts to restrict jury trials is in no way different than the current modern attempts to legislate tort reform.
The Founding Fathers considered the right of a citizen to have civil suits heard by a jury of his peers so precious that they guaranteed it in the Bill of Rights. The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “in suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of a trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Our civil justice system embraces, at its core, the notion of personal responsibility. Our system of justice requires that the person responsible for causing damage should pay for the damage that he or she caused. If the government passes restrictions on personal responsibility in the form of limits on damages people will not be held accountable for their wrongdoing.
Any notion that a jury should be limited such that they can only award so much compensation in certain types of cases against certain types of defendants, regardless of the facts and circumstances of the case, is not a notion that can withstand any logical analysis nor scrutiny. If someone has committed wrongdoing, if someone has been negligent, and their negligent actions have caused someone else harm, particularly if their negligent actions have caused someone else injury or death, they should be held fully accountable for all of the harm that their negligent actions have caused. Wrongdoers should not be insulated from the consequences of their wrongdoing.
Juries should have the discretion to make findings based on the evidence that comes before them. Otherwise our civil justice system could be comprised of a big chart – with verdicts which would apply to every potential situation. American citizens sitting on juries throughout the country should be given the opportunity to hear the facts of each case and then decide the proper verdict.
Alexander Hamilton said, “The civil jury is a valuable safeguard to liberty.”
Every measure of proposed tort reform erodes our civil jury system and threatens our liberty.
Blake Dickson is an attorney and the founder of The Dickson Firm, L.L.C., a law firm in Cleveland, Ohio devoted to representing victims of abuse and neglect. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.