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Washington Examiner
March 6, 2006

We all pay for excessive jury awards

The estimated costs of America's tort system are creeping toward a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. Two-thirds of those costs, according to the President's Council of Economic Advisors, are unwarranted.

If you can't wrap your mind around such figures, try this: Tom LaSorda, president of Chrysler, said in a recent speech that tort costs increase the price of every new car by about $500. That isn't hard to believe when you consider some recent lawsuits.

In 2002, Rose Muñoz was a passenger in a 1992 Mazda Navajo (a Ford Explorer with a Mazda nameplate) when a tire blew. The Navajo rolled over, and Muñoz was ejected and partially paralyzed.

Who was responsible? Well, Muñoz probably wouldn't have been ejected if she'd been wearing a seat belt. And that tire, which was 11 years old, probably wouldn't have failed if the owner had replaced it when Firestone recalled it two years earlier.

But Muñoz blamed Ford and Firestone. The Texas jury wasn't allowed to know that she hadn't been wearing a seat belt, nor that Firestone had settled before trial. Last month the jury assigned 75 percent liability to Ford and 10 percent to Mazda - and awarded the plaintiff $29.5 million in damages.

Let's try another one. One night in 1997, Lance Hall was riding with his friend Melahn Parker near Naples, Fla. in a 1996 Ford Explorer. Hall was reclining in the front passenger seat and wearing a seat belt. Parker fell asleep at the wheel and rolled the Explorer. Hall was ejected and killed.

Ford blamed the defective Firestone tires. But last November, a jury found that Ford knew the Explorer had suspension problems and awarded Hall's family more than $61 million in damages.

One more: Tami Martin's mother also fell asleep at the wheel of her Ford van and slammed into the back of an ambulance. Although Tami, 28, was wearing a seat belt, she was fully reclined in the passenger seat. On impact, she jackknifed over the belt and suffered spinal injuries that left her a paraplegic.

Who was responsible? Not the driver who fell asleep. Not Tami, who ignored the warning in the owner's manual that seat belts won't function when the seats are reclined. The Florida jury ordered Ford to pay $17 million to the plaintiff.

We don't suggest that defendants are always blameless in cases like these. But juries are hardly meeting their responsibility when they reward plaintiffs who fall asleep at the wheel, fail to use seat belts or continue driving on defective tires that have been recalled.

That just isn't right, and it's one reason Americans increasingly support tort reform.

The American Justice Partnership, an industry trade group, estimates that 16 million lawsuits are filed in state courts every year. Far too many end with verdicts that, like those listed above, bestow absurdly high awards on plaintiffs who were plainly in error. For that, we all pay a price.

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