Mr. Jernigan is a Florence attorney and president of the S.C. Association for Justice, formerly the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association. He wrote the below article in The State newspaper about additional efforts to “reform” the civil judicial system.
“In a recent guest column (“Lawsuit reforms will promote job growth,” March 9), business leaders Cathy Novinger and Otis Rawl urged lawmakers to pass a pair of “tort reform” bills they claim will “improve the civil lawsuit climate.” They won’t.
I have great respect for Ms. Novinger and Mr. Rawl, but the only legal “climate” those two bills improve is one that serves giant corporations. The ability of ordinary citizens to seek justice would be seriously undercut.
One bill would limit punitive damages that juries could award when people are injured. The other would place an arbitrary cap on compensation for pain and suffering and shield trucking companies from being held accountable for the actions of their drivers.
These bills would, in essence, limit the legal rights of ordinary S.C. citizens. This is nothing more than an effort to protect corporations from the consequences of their reckless actions.
The arguments to support this legislation are the same old claims we always hear: If big companies can’t be sued, then they’ll have so much more money to hire people and grow the economy. But here are the facts.
First, tort cases make up less than 6 percent of the entire civil caseload. Few of these cases ever go to trial, and when they do, the plaintiff only wins about half the time. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average jury award is only $24,000. It’s hard to see how limits are needed.
Second, giving trucking companies free reign to put drivers with a history of speeding and wrecks on our state’s roads without consequences endangers us all. No one should be protected by law from being held responsible for reckless behavior that injures people and endangers lives — especially not big companies.
Third, the state’s business climate is doing just fine without these unnecessary changes. Last year, export growth in our state was 85 percent higher than the national average. Nearly every week, a new employer locates in South Carolina. Building permits are on the rise, and recent surveys found S.C. manufacturers and business leaders are their most optimistic in years.
In fact, Site Selection magazine, Development Counsellors International and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council all consistently rank our business climate in the top five nationally. That’s good news.
Countless independent studies conducted by consumer groups and nonprofits have shown that economic growth is not enhanced at all by the type of “tort reforms” these bills would create. The opposite is true. There is more evidence to show that hamstringing our civil justice system is likely to slow employment growth.
Ms. Novinger and Mr. Rawl argue that these bills come “at no expense to the taxpayer,” but that claim couldn’t be further from the truth: This legislation is little more than a government bailout for corporate wrongdoers, with taxpayers picking up the tab.
By granting corporations immunity from responsibility, more individuals will be forced to seek financial help for medical bills and lost work from taxpayer-funded programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability.
Additionally, these so-called “tort reform” bills infringe upon our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in civil cases. And that comes at a tremendous cost to all S.C. citizens, including taxpayers.
The civil justice system exists so that those who are harmed by the actions of others can be compensated fairly for their loss. That right exists so wrongdoers can be punished for their actions. In a free and just society, nothing is more important.
The facts are clear: These “tort reforms” would benefit the few at the expense of the many.
If we continue to allow special interests and corporate lobbyists to use phony arguments to rig our civil justice system, the price we’ll all pay is one no free society can long survive: the loss of our constitutional rights.