www.SickOfLawsuits.org Web Chat
U.S. Representative Dan Lungren (CA)
March 6, 2006, 3:00 pm ET
Rep. Lungren: Good afternoon. I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome you to today's Sick of Lawsuits web chat. It is a pleasure to join you in a discussion on the important topic of legal reform. This is an area in which I've had experience from multiple perspectives, first as a private practitioner, then as a member of Congress and also as Attorney General of my home state of California.
Just this past year, as a member of the House of Representatives, I helped pass several bills to deter frivolous litigation and put an end to abuses in our courts. I believe we must act to ensure justice and fairness in our legal system. Now, let's take some of your questions.
Bob__New York, NY: I agree with you wholeheartedly about reforming the tort system, but what safeguards are there for plaintiffs who really have a legitimate claim to be awarded a justifiable settlement rather than to have a cap limit on any awards?
Rep. Lungren: Keep in mind that most proposals to "cap" awards would only cap what are called "pain and suffering" or non-economic damages, which are inherently unquantifiable and allow juries to pick numbers out of a hat. Tort reform proposals generally do NOT limit what are called "economic damages," and economic damages include anything whose value can be quantified, including lost wages or home services, medical costs, the costs of pain-reducing drugs, therapy, and lifetime rehabilitation care, and anything else to which a receipt can be attached. In my own state of California, legal reforms have been in place for over 28 years in which "pain and suffering" damages have been capped at $250,000.
Does this mean that plaintiffs that have legitimate claims cannot receive fair compensation? Absolutely not. In just the last few years, juries in California, which caps "pain and suffering" damages but not economic damages, have awarded the following in economic damages to deserving victims: an $84,250,000 award to a 5 year-old boy, a $59,317,500 award to a 3 year-old girl, a $50,239,557 award to a 10 year-old boy, a $12,558,852 award to a 30 year-old homemaker, and a $27,573,922 award to a 25 year-old woman.
In the end, we should all keep in mind that we live in a system of checks and balances in which no single governmental entity -- including juries -- should have absolute power to award unlimited amounts of damages in all circumstances. As a Member of Congress, it is my duty to support legislation that strikes reasonable balances in that system of checks and balances. Also, what plaintiffs get under settlements agreement (rather than jury verdicts) is usually confidential and not made a matter of public record. We do know, however, based on those records that are available, that many times lawyers can receive more money out of a settlement than the real victims.
Peter__Danvers, MA: First thank you for your leadership and support! What can individuals do to best support change? Also can the compensation of lawyers be changed so that incentives for abusing the system are rectified?
Rep. Lungren: Thanks for your kind words. To address your first question, it’s important for citizens to get involved at all levels to show their support for legislation that restores justice and fairness to our legal system. By getting involved in local groups, staying informed on the issues, and educating your friends and families, you can make a difference.
Regarding your second question, I supported H.R. 420, the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which passed the House last year. That bill would amend the federal rules of court procedure to require that if a judge finds that a case is frivolous, the judge must order the party filing the frivolous lawsuit to pay the victim of the frivolous lawsuit the costs the victim incurred defending himself or herself against the frivolous case. The reform, if passed by the Senate, would go a long way toward deterring frivolous lawsuits.
Carl__Denton, TX: Representative Dan Lungren, it is my understanding the President has been asking for this legislation for some time and it is the Republicans in the Senate that have failed to deliver. Why can't the majority party at all levels of Government get this much needed legislation passed?
Rep. Lungren: The House has passed, and the Senate has failed to pass to date, legislation reforming our health care litigation system, legislation to prevent frivolous lawsuits against restaurants brought by people who overeat, and legislation to require parties who file frivolous lawsuits to pay the victim of the frivolous lawsuit the costs the victim incurred defending himself or herself against the frivolous case. However, there is still hope the Senate will pass that much-needed legislation. I am encouraged that the Senate has recently passed, and the President has signed into law, some legal reforms, including a reform of our class action system which will put more interstate cases in federal court. Under Senate rules, 40 Senators can block legislation supported by 60 Senators, which sometimes makes it impossible to pass legislation out of the Senate even when the vast majority of Americans support the legislation.
Don__New York, NY: What legislative areas show a chance of being passed, for example, S908 the obesity bill limiting lawsuits? Does this have a future?
Rep. Lungren: The House companion to that bill, H.R. 554, the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, passed the House last year with large, bipartisan approval, indicating it has a good chance of passing the Senate. During the last Congress, Senator Harry Reid, who is now the Minority Leader in the Senate, was a co-sponsor of similar legislation, and I am hopeful the Senate will vote on that issue this year.
Dan__Pleasanton, CA: The Trial Lawyers Association has many dollars and a strong lobbying contingency. It will be difficult to make major changes in the laws. How can we overcome the lobbying effort to enact reasonable laws regarding lawsuits, etc.?
Rep. Lungren: First of all, the trial lawyers have a valid point in that individuals in America have a right – enshrined in our legal tradition – to have access to the courts for legitimate causes of action. Therefore, I have always acknowledged their point that we should preserve that right and avoid extreme measures which would go too far. In countering their opposition to our reasonable approaches, we should point out that we do nothing to deny aggrieved plaintiffs access to the courtroom. Indeed, we strive to strike an appropriate balance.
Although it is true that a number of the trial lawyers groups have been exceedingly successful in blocking tort reform proposals in many states, it doesn't mean they'll win out in the end. We continue to see many abuses to our legal system, and people who want reform will need to work hard to continually highlight such abuses. Last year's major victory in the passage of the Class Action Fairness Act is the best evidence of that. We still have a long way to go.
Russ__Los Angeles, CA: Do the various states have laws penalizing frivolous lawsuits, and if so, why is federal legislation needed to address the problem of frivolous lawsuits?
Rep. Lungren: Several states have successfully enacted reforms that would limit frivolous lawsuits, but not enough have done so. Such lawsuits are not only a problem for individuals but one of the biggest problems for small businesses. They spend billions of dollars each year defending against frivolous claims. In my previous practice of the law, I had the opportunity to see "up close and personal" the negative impact of frivolous claims in the context of medical malpractice cases. I would estimate that approximately 85% of the cases I defended against had literally no substantive bases for continuing after the discovery stage. Yet, judges were reluctant to rule by way of summary judgment and often we were placed in a position of paying "nuisance value" in order to get out of the case and avoid trial. These "costs" add up and contribute greatly to the overall cost of the system paid for by the "innocent" defendant.
Tom__California: How do you feel about the growing trend of activist Attorney General's like Eliott Spitzer?
Rep. Lungren: While I was one of the Attorneys General to have participated in the tobacco industry lawsuit, I felt that it was a unique legal matter -- owing to the discovered evidence of the industry's past conduct concerning minors and the industry's marketing schemes as well as the nature of some of its practices concerning additives -- I was wary of that exercise becoming a template for other perceived "business abuses." The temptation for state Attorneys General to assume the role properly performed by members of Congress and the federal Executive Branch is great; an understanding of the legitimate functions of the state governments vis-a-vis the federal government is often lacking -- from both the state and federal perspective.
Rep. Lungren: Thank you for that question. We are nearing the end and have time for one more question.
Carl__Mt. Vernon, IL: What is the impact of expert witnesses in the courtroom? I've recently read several articles about people supplying false testimony or diagnoses.
Rep. Lungren: Expert testimony is often essential to a trial. I always made it my purpose in the courtroom to utilize the testimony of experts as a means to make the case more understandable to the jurors. Some practitioners would disagree -- they see the role of experts to make the case as difficult as possible for jurors to understand, thereby causing the jurors to place their trust in the lawyers instead. The greatest problem with "experts" comes from a judge who allows the testimony of such a witness to wander beyond his or her established expertise. The other problem I have encountered is that of "junk science" – the presentation of "expertise" which has no real foundation in accepted schools of study. Legislation has to be carefully crafted to see that mere unsubstantiated opinion is not allowed by an "expert" and the judges must be vigilant to enforce that.
Rep. Lungren: I want to offer my sincere thanks to everyone who took the time to participate in this chat today. I enjoyed taking your questions. Please keep in mind that there are a number of ways that you can get involved. Simply sharing your knowledge and passion for an issue with those around you is one of the most important ones. In addition, I would strongly encourage you to contact your Senators and voice your support for the legal reform bills that have passed the House but are stalled in the Senate. These bills include H.R. 420, the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, H.R. 554, the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, and H.R. 5, the HEALTH Act. Again, thank you for your interest in these issues.