Skip links


A new, impeccably researched academic study called “The Empirical Effects of Tort Reform,” written by Cornell Law School Professor Theodore Eisenberg, one of the “foremost authorities on the use of empirical analysis in legal scholarship.” (The article will soon be in the Research Handbook On The Economics Of Torts(Jennifer Arlen, ed.))Professor Eisenberg’s article focuses on “three central objects of tort reform: punitive damages, medical malpractice, and products liability.” In so doing, Professor Eisenberg exposes a number of myths the business community promotes about the tort system.

12 Common Myths About Tort Reform

Myth #1: Information funneled through the mainstream media is uncensored and unbiased.

“Through advertising and propagation of incomplete or distorted information, interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association obscure the status of both the legal system and primary actors’ behavior.”

Myth #2: Punitive damages awards are out of control.

Business groups often mention punitive damages as an area of concern (e.g., U.S. Chamber of Commerce 2008) and punitive damages have been perceived as so problematical as to lead the Supreme Court to impose constitutional limits, using controversial substantive due process principles, as well as federal statutory limits (BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore; State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell; Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker).

“The attention punitive damages receives is disproportionate to their real world impact.” Specifically, “[t]he rate at which punitive damages are awarded has been stable over time… No study shows punitive damages being systematically awarded in inappropriate cases.” Also, “[a] central question is whether caps on punitive damages or Supreme Court decisions have affected the punitive-compensatory relation.” The available evidence says “no.”

“The absence of change in the punitive-compensatory relation is consistent with a punitive damages crisis having been largely a social construct of entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The construct was reinforced by understandable media emphasis on large awards and further fueled by experimental research, never reconciled with realworld data (Eisenberg et al. 2002), funded by ExxonMobil Corporation (Sunstein et al. 2002) to mitigate Exxon’s liability related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that claims of out-of-control punitive damages have been exaggerated (Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker 2008). And it is consistent with the reaction of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when its survey of state court systems was shown to be inaccurate with respect to punitive damages (Eisenberg 2009). Rather than fix its survey, or admit that prior results were misleading, the Chamber stopped asking its respondents about punitive damages (U.S. Chamber of Commerce 2010). The Chamber’s questionable behavior prompted the extraordinary response of a judiciary defending itself against unsupported characterizations (PRNewswire 2010; The Pop Tort 2010).”

Myth #3: Patient Safety is Suffering Because Too Many Patients Sue.

The truth is that patient safety is already suffering because too few patients sue. One possible factor contributing to the continued high rate of errors is that doctors do not expect to bear the full cost of harms caused by their negligence. Studies of medical error consistently find that the vast majority of patients injured by medical error do not file a claim (Weiler et al. 1993; Sloan et al. 1995; Andrews, 2006). Those that do sue often do not recover. Beyond this, hospitals do not bear the full costs of the harms caused in them even though hospitals directly and indirectly influence patients’ risk of medical error (Mello et al. (2007)).

Myth #4: There Is A “Lawsuit Lottery” in Medical Malpractice Cases.

This myth should not be a surprise. Even Victor Schwartz, General Counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, admits this. But the empirical studies also show, “[t]he overwhelming evidence is that the legal system’s disposition of medical malpractice claims is strongly associated with the quality of medical care. Claims of a lawsuit lottery are unsupported.”

Also noted is how those who argue that the system is flooded with frivolous lawsuits deceptively interchange the terms “claims” and “lawsuits” to try to make their case:

“Thus, misleading impressions about the medical malpractice system, such as the AMA’s statement that “75 percent of medical liability claims are closed without a payment to the plaintiff” (AMA 2006) depend wholly on failing to distinguish between weak cases, which tend not receive payment, and strong cases, which every study shows to receive payment at a higher rate than that suggested by the AMA. Distinguishing between the two groups of studies is important because a claim presented to an insurer is not the same as a lawsuit. And claims against multiple defendants may lead to recovery from only one, leaving three claims without a payment but an incident with evidence of negligence.”

Myth #5:Now That Med Mal Filings Have Decreased, Med Mal Reform Advocates Have Quieted Down.

“[C]ampaigns for medical malpractice reform persist in states with declining filings (e.g., New York Senate Bill 2011). And the Pacific Research Institute, a freemarket group, ranks Connecticut as 38th in a medical-tort index ranking states, New York as 43rd, Oregon as 39th, and Rhode Island as 49th (Graham 2010). As noted, however, NCSC data show a decade-long decline in malpractice filings in each of these states. Connecticut filings declined by 30 percent, New York filings by 1 percent, Oregon filings by 42 percent, and Rhode Island filings by 34 percent.”

Myth # 6: “Tort Reform” Increases Patient Safety Incentives.

“Evidence suggests that greater savings to hospitals and insurers can be achieved not at the expense of patient victims. … Caps that reduce premiums by brute force likely discourage more painstaking but socially desirable efforts to improve safety.”

Myth #7: “Tort Reform” Decreases The “Severity” Of Claims.

“The effect of caps and other reforms may help explain increasing awards in medical malpractice cases that reach trial. The number of lawsuits decreases, as suggested by NCSC filing data, but caps require attorneys to be more selective about the cases they accept. …This greater selectivity and need for greater damages to accept a case likely contribute to the increasing observed mean and median medical malpractice awards in cases that do reach trial. Garber et al. (2009) used a survey of 965 plaintiffs’ attorneys to assess whether noneconomic damages caps and attorney fee limits affected access to justice for medical malpractice victims. They concluded that caps and fee limits make it harder to retain counsel.”

Myth #8: “Tort Reform” Achieves Health Care Savings.

“One recent summary concludes that the ‘accumulation of recent evidence finding zero or small effects suggests that it is time for policymakers to abandon the hope that tort reform can be a major element in healthcare cost control’ (Paik 2012, 175).”

Myth #9: There is A Causal Connection Between C-Sections and Liability.

“On balance, the available evidence does not support a consistent association between liability pressure and increased cesarean rates. Increased cesarean rates can be attributable to factors other than liability pressure and studies with reasonable control groups of physicians without liability pressure tend not to find an association.”

Myth #10: There is A Causal Connection Between Liability Premiums and Access to Care.

“If increasing premiums drive exit decisions, then programs alleviating premiums should have effects. But Smits et al. (2009) surveyed all obstetrical care providers in Oregon in 2002 and 2006. Cost of malpractice premiums was the most frequently cited reason for stopping maternity care. An Oregon subsidy program for rural physicians pays 80 percent of the professional liability premium for an ob/gyn and 60 percent of the premium for a family or general practitioner. Receiving a malpractice subsidy was not associated with continuing maternity services by rural physicians. Subsidized physicians were as likely as nonsubsidized physicians to report plans to stop providing maternity care services. And physician concerns in Oregon should be interpreted in light of the NCSC finding, described above, that this was a period of substantial decline of Oregon medical malpractice lawsuit filings.”

Myth #11: Medical Education Adequately Informs Doctors Of How The Med Mal Legal System Works.

“A bizarre aspect of the medical malpractice reform debate is the recognition that doctors grossly misperceive the system, accompanied by recommendations to change the system to cater to their misimpressions. Rather than educate doctors about reality, one reads of proposals to change the system to cater to physicians’ misperceptions (Hermer and Brody 2010). It seems preferable to include a reasonable medical education requirement focusing on how the legal system operates in medical malpractice cases rather than to curtail the current liability system that is widely recognized as underenforcing standard-of-care norms.”

Myth #12: Product Liability Lawsuits Do Not Promote Deterrence of Unsafe Products.

“Non-experimental evidence relating to corporate behavior reasonably consistently suggests that products liability law deters. … Qualitative assessment of individual industries also suggests that products liability promotes safety. Although fear of market reaction to poor products likely dominates liability pressure, liability risk often is cited as enhancing safety.”

“Liability considerations were a sufficient condition or a contributing factor to at least fourteen important auto safety improvements, including inadvertent vehicle movement, fuel tank design, occupant restraints, and all-terrain vehicle restrictions. The chemical industry is reported to have made significant safety improvements as a result of liability exposure. Ashford and Stone (1991) found that liability pressure stimulated the development of safer products and processes and spurred technological innovations that reduced chemical hazard risks (367-68). They conclude that tort reforms are misplaced because significant under deterrence existed. Johnson (1991, 452) concludes, “The claim that the product liability system unduly compromises the chemical industry is not well supported by the evidence.” Pharmaceutical company attorneys credit liability pressure for safety improvements. One company attorney regarded the liability crisis as largely a myth. “I believe––though it’s heretical––that the liability crisis is largely a myth when one looks at the available information such as the actual number of cases” (Swazey 1991, 297). This industry attorney concluded that tort reform proposals exceed what may be needed to address flaws in the system.”

Link to original online article here:

Join the Discussion

Return to top of page
CLARKSON LAW FIRM Substantive response within 24 hours.
Request Case Evaluation