Revision — From the April 2016 issue

Suing for Justice

Your lawsuits are good for America

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As a law student at Harvard in the 1950s, I heard a professor joke that at the school they contract the law of torts in the morning and distort the law of contracts in the afternoon. We students were supposed to chuckle accordingly. We had been taught that tort law and contract law were the twin pillars of our country’s privately invoked legal system, but my fellow law students and I could not then have foreseen how weakened these twin pillars would become.

Illustrations by John Ritter

Illustrations by John Ritter

The story of how tort law originally evolved from its roots in medieval England is a story of millions of actors and judicial decisions that proceeded in small but steady advances. These advances embodied the democratic principles on which our country was founded and together make up a revolutionary process of personal-conflict resolution. Tort law allows an individual who believes that he or she has been wrongfully injured in person or property to retain an attorney on a contingency fee, paid only if the plaintiff prevails. After a lawsuit has been filed, and has survived a defendant’s motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s attorney may compel the defendant, be it a person, a corporation, or a city’s police department, to disclose factual information regarding the claim. State and federal procedures urge the contending parties to exchange all relevant information beforehand in an attempt to encourage settlements and expedite any eventual trial. The court proceedings, should there be any, are open to the press and the public. Verbatim transcripts of the trial testimony are made. In pursuit of what is called “truthful evidence,” attorneys for both sides can vigorously cross-examine witnesses. Settlement can occur at any time, but if one does not occur, the trial jury is responsible for returning a verdict and assessing damages. The judge has the authority, though it is rarely invoked, to reduce or increase the damages if he or she thinks the jury is way off base. The losing party can then appeal, again in open court. The media can track the proceedings from start to finish. No decisions by the other two branches of government come close to being so clearly refereed, so open, and so subject to public review.

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is a consumer advocate and the founder of the American Museum of Tort Law, in Winsted, Connecticut.

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