May 17, 1999
Going from bad to worse
Federal intrusion in civil actions detrimental to all
When dealing with the federal government, one thing is certain: if a bad situation can be made worse, Congress will typically find a way to do so.
As a physician, I have long abhorred the outrageous abuse of our legal system by unscrupulous attorneys filing frivolous lawsuits. We all know well the infamous spilt coffee case, and there are dozens more.
For as bad as those are, however, the federal government is now going to step in and make things worse. Much worse.
Currently, liability and contract law is handled exclusively by the states. If someone is harmed (physically or economically) as a result of the action or inaction of another, they may seek recourse in state courts. It has rightly fallen to the states to determine how best to procedurally balance the rightful reparation for plaintiffs with the need to allow for reasonableness in the judgments against defendants.
Now, though, Congress is stepping in to federalize contract and liability law. The process began in earnest just recently as the House took up legislation to limit the liability of corporations and government resulting from potential "y2k" computer glitch problems. While the government has worked hard to downplay the potential problems with "y2k," the House has dashed madly forward with this legislation to shield businesses against lawsuits resulting from their failing to adequately resolve their own "y2k" problems.
While one might initially think this sounds like a good idea, it does not take long to understand why it is not. First, this is federal meddling in an area of law not given it under our Constitution or legal tradition.
Second, as experience has shown, federal "solutions" tend to dumb down a process, rather than encourage excellence. One need look only at that state of our schools to see the most practical example of that premise. In the arena of law, one can examine the results of the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which took abortion law out of the purview of the states and gave it to the federal courts.
Finally, and perhaps most persuasively, is the argument from personal interest. Say your local power company has known (like the rest of us) for some three or more years of the potential problems arising from the date-reading conflict in computers, yet did nothing or very little to correct the problem. Come the stroke of midnight leading into January 1, if power goes out at home it becomes an inconvenience, as for a hospital or business. But if the company was truly incompetent, and the outage lasts into days, or weeks, as they try to manage the situation, the outage becomes costly, disastrous and potentially dangerous. Hospital generators last only so long, small businesses can stand to be closed for only a short period, and children desperately need a warm house.
At that point, you and your fellow consumers of the government-granted monopoly power company will want to be compensated for your losses. But, alas, the federal government will have protected you from yourself. You might get something, but not nearly what you deserve for the company's inaction.
But do not think this is a limited instance. Rather, some are clamoring for the federal government to intervene in all civil suits such as those against gun manufacturers. Soon, as with the issues of abortion and education, the minor intrusion of the federal government in contract and tort law will soon amount to a complete take-over of matters constitutionally left to the states.
While I strongly condemn frivolous lawsuits, it is hard to support frivolous disregard for our Constitution and system of law. I trust the voters of the several states, and their legislators and governors, to best address these situations.
Leave it to Congress to make something bad, even worse.