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Morality and Liability

The United States is far more litigious compared to other countries, and shockingly so. Most Americans have a favorite anecdote: the couple that sued for more legroom on an airline flight; the woman who sued a fast-food restaurant for its tough bagel; the man who sued the cable company for getting his wife addicted to TV.

The economic costs of this litigious lifestyle are incalculable. Even more troubling is how the problem does not admit to an easy political solution. As you look through the tort-reform wish list, one wonders whether people who have truly suffered wrong-doing by an institution would receive justice under the new strictures.

It would be tragic if tort reform ended up denying members of the public just compensation when they have been injured in a true case of corporate fraud or negligence—though we should remember that there is no greater protection against bad business than a free economy that rewards excellence and service.

The goal of any legal reform should be toward an even-handed system of strict liability that would, insofar as it is possible, place blame for damages on those who caused the damage, while not unjustly punishing those who appear to have deep pockets. This goal is much easier to formulate than to accomplish, if only because the reforms themselves will be heavily influenced by trial lawyers who stand to benefit from evading the new law (and will know its ins and outs better than anyone else).

For this reason, the tort reform issue cannot ultimately be solved through the political system. What can finally address the problem is attention given to the underlying cultural issue: it is impossible to preserve freedom without an equally strong commitment to personal responsibility. We should be free to act and to choose but we should not be protected from facing the consequences—good or bad—of our behavior.

God grants us the agency to make a choice between many alternative paths, some of which are good and some of which are sinful in varying degrees. At the core of the moral drama of faith is gaining the ability to recognize when we have done wrong, stop blaming others, accept our own personal culpability for error, seek forgiveness, amend our lives, and ask God's mercy.

Excuses and blame casting will not help our society. To rightly address the problem of tort reform and legal liability, we must first turn inward and ask whether we ourselves might bear personal responsibility when events take unfortunate turns. Only once we have done this should we turn toward others, using litigation only as a means of conflict resolution and not as a tool for harming others unjustly through a redistributivist mentality.

Or we might put it this way: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye” (Matthew 7:1—3, 5 NIV).