AMERICA is in the midst of a new civil war, a war that threatens to undercut the civil basis of our society. It is a war that pits American against American just as surely as our first Civil War pitted brother against brother. It is a war of lawsuits. The weapons of choice are not bullets and bayonets, but abusive lawsuits brought by an army of trial lawyers subverting our system of civil justice while enriching themselves.
Nowhere is this war being fought more fiercely than today on Capitol Hill. In the middle of the vigorous and sometimes confusing debate over reform of the health-care system, the trial lawyers' lobby is attempting to railroad an amendment to the reform package that would, if passed, add to the cost of health care while limiting patients' access to the care they need.
Picture this: A young expectant mother wants her baby to be brought into the world by a doctor she trusts and respects. When she asks her longtime family physician to deliver her child, he makes a quick calculation and responds emphatically, ``No.'' That answer should infuriate us all. The fact is, in some states more than half of the family physicians have stopped delivering babies altogether. Nationwide, 1 out of every 8 family doctors has ceased to provide this, one of the most fundamental of medical services. What has brought us to the very sad spectacle of a doctor refusing to bring a new life into the world? As for medical liability lawsuits, a doctor's fear of these suits is understandable when you recognize that 40 percent of all doctors and 70 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists will be sued in their careers. The rate at which doctors are being sued has exploded by 1,000 percent since 1984. Direct-liability costs have been growing at four times the rate of inflation. Yet of the billions spent on medical liability, only 40 cents of every dollar reached the injured patient. Trial lawyers collect 30 percent to 50 percent of the award.
Clearly, people injured by medical malpractice are entitled to fair and prompt compensation. America's civil justice system was originally designed to protect these people. But it was not meant to be abused by a small band of lawyers.
In attempts to curb abusive litigation, states across the country have developed innovative solutions to resolve liability claims while containing costs. California has had effective medical liability reform in place since the mid-1970s. More than half the states have it. As on many issues, the states are leading the way to common-sense reform.
This is why proponents of reform were stunned this month to see the House Judiciary Committee report out a medical liability amendment to the health-care bill that can only be described as a disaster for the public and a windfall for the trial lawyers. Through their lobbyists and political contributions, the trial lawyers have inserted language that would actually overturn the reform the states have worked on for more than 20 years. Some of the congressional leadership health-care proposals have similar language.
There is bipartisan support among members of Congress, the nation's governors, and the general public for effective medical- liability reform to improve access, contain costs, and ensure adequate compensation for patients who are wrongfully injured. What stands in the way is a group of lawyers intent on keeping their personal gravy train rolling.
Some years ago, after leaving the Senate, I did well on the lecture circuit and decided to invest the savings in a long-held dream of owning a New England inn. In addition to being hampered by needlessly complicated federal, state, and local reporting requirements and expensive procedures, I was on the receiving end of two frivolous lawsuits. We won the suits but not without costs in time, energy, and money needed to make our business successful and profitable. I learned the hard way: America's civil justice system must be reformed if we are to preserve it.
If we Americans continue more and more to divide ourselves into plaintiffs and defendants seizing on every opportunity to sue each other and take our differences to court, our society will become less congenial and self-confident.
During last winter's ice storms in Washington, I fell on the ice outside a Washington theater. As a result, I underwent surgery and lengthy therapy. It never occurred to me to sue anyone. I simply fell down. But numerous friends suggested that I sue the city or the theater, or anyone else in the vicinity. If I and my fellow citizens all take that route, the lawyers may get richer, but the rest of us will be the poorer for it.
The doctor who took care of me did everything right. But with an injury like this, doctors have to have the courage to follow what are sometimes risky and radical procedures. I don't want my doctor so frightened by potential lawsuits that he backs away from these procedures, or charges me exorbitant fees to cover huge malpractice costs; nor do I want opportunistic trial lawyers getting rich at the expense of me and my doctor and my fellow Americans.
The selfish lobby
Let's protect the right to go to court when we have a legitimate grievance. But let's exercise some measure of restraint and reason in our personal judgments and use of our civil-justice system.
It is alarming that some of the health-care legislation pending in Congress has been modified at the instigation of the powerful Trial Lawyers Association - not to serve the public interest but to further enrich the lawyers. We need more hard information on campaign contributions and lobbying by the trial lawyers. I have no hesitance in asserting that this lobby is one of the most potent and selfish bands in Washington.
Nobody wants to weaken a good civil-justice system or deny individuals their day in court. But the nation and our economy cannot continue to be held hostage by ``crybaby'' legal practices.
The tort or lawsuit component of our justice system exacts a multibillion-dollar toll on the United States economy and consumes a portion of our gross national product five times greater than in Japan or Britain. Such costs are inevitably passed back to consumers in increased prices for goods and services. Not just in doctor or hospital bills, but in every product targeted in product-liability lawsuits.
Some of my political opponents have worked hard, especially when I ran for president against the late President Nixon, to create an image of me as excessively liberal - perhaps because of my outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and my advocacy of political reform. But civil-justice reform is warmly embraced by audiences both left and right. After a recent speech on this topic before a generally conservative audience, one listener said he never thought he'd see the day when he agreed with George McGovern about anything!
As Congress moves toward voting on health-care reform, let's urge it not to turn back the clock on malpractice reforms.
* George McGovern is a former US senator and presidential candidate.