Of the compensation paid under civil suits, only a fifth of the money represents genuine recompense for measurable economic losses suffered by the plaintiffs. Many of the huge claims now being brought over asbestos are on behalf of people who are not ill but whose lawyers argue they might just have come into contact with asbestos and might one day get sick as a result.
The latest target is fast-food restaurants: on Friday June 20th, lawyers were due to gather for a conference in Boston to discuss ways of suing them on behalf of people who have become overweight from eating too many burgers and fries.
Critics of such enormous liability claims argue that the main beneficiaries are the lawyers— who often take 30%-50% of the settlement—that the sums awarded are out of all proportion to the defendant’s true culpability, and that some businesses and professions, especially doctors, are being driven to the wall by the courts’ excessive generosity to plaintiffs.
The most prominent critic of what he calls “junk lawsuits” is President George Bush, whose election campaign in 2000 highlighted the justice reforms he passed in Texas while he was its governor. Mr Bush has repeatedly called on Congress for new federal laws to curb extravagant compensation claims and to stop lawyers “shopping around” local courts for a friendly judge who will be lavishly generous in awarding someone else’s money. On June 12th the House of Representatives passed a bill to clamp down on this by moving all class-action suits worth over $5m to the federal courts, which usually make smaller awards.
Earlier this month, Mr Bush’s successor as governor of Texas, Rick Perry pushed through some further reforms, imposing new limits on claims over both medical negligence and faulty products. The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) says Texas has gone farther than other states in curbing excessively generous compensation and on imposing penalties on those bringing frivolous lawsuits.