Acton Commentary

Tort Reform and the End of Heroes


Last week, my wife and I took two of our three sons to seethe film The Incredibles . If you have noyoung children begging you to see it and think it has no message applicable toadults, allow me to correct you.It is a powerful movie in its storyline, animation, and moral lessons.

Mr. Incredible is one of a number of superheroes who fightcrime and, as you would imagine, do good deeds. During one incident, Mr. Incredible saves a man jumping froma building. It turns out that theman did not want to be saved and responds to the good deed by filing alawsuit. Eventually, legal actioncauses all the superheroes to retire and go undercover in a governmentprotection program. The plot ofthe movie revolves around living in a litigious society and overcoming thosewho insist that anyone with a special gift or talent be forced intomediocrity.

The message is striking, although the idea of superheroessaving the day is obviously farfetched.As I thought about the movie, though, I realized that litigiousness andmediocrity are some of the biggest obstacles in our culture. The propensity tosettle every dispute by legal action undermines values, such as trust andforgiveness, that are essential to the maintenance of genuine community. Fearof rewarding or achieving excellence discourages human persons from fulfillingGod-given potential.

The story of Mr. Incredible is actually more common thanmost of us would like to admit. Iasked a friend of mine to relate his father's story to illustrate my point. Hewrote:

“My father is a retired Obstetrician-Gynecologist. Heattended Notre Dame for undergrad then Loyola Medical School. After hisresidency in Chicago he was offered a terrific position with a hospital inChicago which would have put him on the cutting edge of Obstetrics andGynecology at a time (the late '60s) when that field was on the edge ofextraordinary change.”

“My Dad turned down that job. Hedecided to return to his small hometown of Escanaba, Michigan. Escanaba is atown of 12,000 people located in the Upper Peninsula. There he could give backto the community that raised him and gave him so much. He would be the firstOB-GYN specialist that small community ever saw. During the late '60s, the '70sand early '80s, my Dad was the only Ob-Gyn specialist within a 45-mile radiusof Escanaba. He enjoyed long hours, long nights, phone calls at all hours, andthe ineffable joy of ushering in new human life to the small town he loved. Hiscommitment to that community was heroic and tireless. And his connection withthe community was intimate. He delivered hundreds of babies each year and hepassionately and humanely cared for women in and around Escanaba during somevery traumatic moments in their lives.”

“In the mid to late '80s, his malpractice premiums become so onerous (roughly$150,000 per year) that he was forced to consider retirement. The premiumproblem along with the new awful reality of having to look at each new patientor case as a potential lawsuit started sucking the joy and satisfaction rightout of the practice for him.”

“In the early '90s, he was sued twice as a tangential defendant in two lawsuitswhere he had been called into difficult deliveries at the last minute becausehe was a specialist. In these two lawsuits he was deposed by a plaintiff'sattorney from lower Michigan who treated my father so uncivilly anddisrespectfully that my Dad finally had the joy of his practice completelytaken away. The premiums were outrageous, the trial lawyers were everywhere,and the demand was for perfect babies, or else.”

“Alas, in 1995, my Dad retired for good at age 59. The medical practice heloved became a potential exposure he could not afford; and it became anadversarial environment he would never understand. Escanaba,Michigan, sadly lost one of the finest physicians it has ever, or will ever,have the honor of calling ”Doctor Bill.“ It was tragic and it was whollypreventable.”

Dr. Bill's vocation, his calling,has been taken away from him. Noone gains, but the entire population of Escanaba loses.

The fictional tale of Mr.Incredible comes to life in this doctor's story. With thousands of othersimilar stories, it is testimony to the profound need for tort reform in ournation. Pastors are afraid tocounsel people. Nurses are nervousabout giving needed care. Teachersfear to address the issues they know are troubling the lives of their students. Manufacturers raise the cost of theirproduct because of the constant threat of lawsuits. Restaurants warn people that their coffee is hot andshouldn't be carried in their laps. At some point, it becomes simply ridiculousand any sense of biblical fairness is lost.

Of course we need to maintainavenues of justice for those who have been injured by the actions ofanother. But without somelimitation, without the exercise of some prudence, without some appreciationfor what we are doing to ourselves and our culture, we are in danger of suingourselves into oblivion.