America has, over the past twenty years, gone lawsuit-happy... a state of being eagerly encouraged by the trial lawyers who have become multimillionaires by claiming between a third and 60% of high-dollar awards and settlements.
I'm not going into chapter and verse on why the current civil court system is hopelessly broken- John Stossel does it better than I can in his most recent book. I'll just touch on the main points of why the system has failed to work to rectify the violations of rights and now works only to enrich lawyers while depriving us of freedom.
In our current system, there are three kinds of damages awarded in civil courts: active relief (taking an action to make right the wrong done), monetary damages (paying the costs or losses incurred by the wronged party), and punitive damages. This last item is the corruptive one- because it takes a system never intended to be used for punishment and makes it the first, rather than last, resort.
Put more simply: under normal circumstances, you're only punished if you intentionally do something wrong. In criminal courts this requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt- the jurors have to be certain of guilt before dealing out punishment. Punitive damages, however, take place in civil court... in which the burden of proof is much lighter. All you have to prove is that the defendant is more at fault than the plaintiff- even by a 51%-49% difference- and the defendant has to pay up.
The result? Trial lawyers come in with junk science, pick their most friendly jurisdiction- Jefferson County, Illinois being a particular favorite- overwhelm a jury with emotionally full and factually empty arguments, and win multi-million-dollar awards. The expense of fighting these cases- which can take as long as a decade- is often enough to scare people into settling out of court, even when they are obviously in the right.
To make things even better, many laws- particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act- have given civilian trial lawyers the power to make private prosecutions, without any client or complaintant, and to collect massive fees for doing it. Between the natural desire for vengeance, basic greed and corruption, and the growing tendency to use courts to bypass the legislative or political system, lawsuits are booming like never before. We pay the cost in higher prices at the store and lower freedom in the marketplace and in the public arena.
My personal solutions are:
(1) Adopt the European "loser pays" system. By mandating that the loser in any case pays full court cost, including the fees of the opposing counsel, frivolous lawsuits get a hard reining-in... while, at the same time, "no charge unless you win" ambulance-chasers find their sales pitch no longer effective.
(2) Take punishment away from the civil courts. If someone has done something for which they deserve to be punished, MAKE IT A CRIME. If it's not a crime to do it, you shouldn't be punished for doing it. Either way, punishment should only be dealt out if it can be proven that the act was deliberate and intentional beyond a reasonable doubt- the criminal standard, rather than the civil standard.
(3) Outlaw the practice of charging a percentage of settlements. This freedom has been abused so grossly that even a Libertarian mindset must rebel. When the lawyer walks away from a winning case with more money than his client, the system is broken... yet this happens quite often. In class-action cases, the "clients" usually get NO MONEY AT ALL. By making lawyers return to charging fixed fees, the legal industry is brought back into a competitive free-market system... rather than the rigged rules which allow them to get rich and backstab their clients without consequence.
Here's three recent news items which each reflect outcomes driven by the current lawsuit epidemic, and the trial lawyers such as John Edwards who support, defend, and strengthen the current system:
4-year-old suspended for sexual contact for hugging teacher's aide - Schools live in utter terror of lawsuits brought by parents. The result, obviously, are absurd zero-tolerance CYA policies that destroy the freedom of teacher to teach and student to learn.
The Seattle Christmas Tree Affair - Since this particular article was written, the Christmas trees have been restored. Again, the yanking of the trees was done in terror of lawsuit- even though the trees themselves have been established in prior court cases as secular, not religious, symbols.
Silicone implants back on the market, Houston Silicone City again? - Silicone implants were sued out of existence for a decade based on junk science. Before that, Houston was the main city where people went to have the surgery- and, indeed, the main place they were manufactured. Science has established that the implants are as safe as any other implants.
BONUS NOTE: Quoting for the article: "The National Women's Health Network said the agency failed to do its job because it did not demand the companies prove that implants are safe." In other words, we as supposedly free people should not do anything, buy anything, sell anything unless we can prove to everyone that there is absolutely no risk whatever. That's not freedom. That's the very OPPOSITE of freedom. Perfect security can only come with perfect control of everything... and you, the individual, won't be the one with that control. With the freedom to choose comes the freedom to risk yourself and take the consequences. Provided you know up front what the risk is, and nobody's misled you about it, you should be able to do whatever the hell you want.