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Initiatives in the Law - Tort Reform

THE TAXPAYER NEEDS TORT REFORM NOW
People sue the City of New York for just about any injury sustained on City property or incurred during involvement with a City employee. Because of sympathetic and generous juries, and laws that do not create an even playing field, plaintiffs often recover in full even when the City is just the innocent or slightly responsible deep-pocket defendant. In recent years, plaintiffs have been obtaining astronomical awards from juries, without offsets to prevent double recoveries. The result has been a frightening spike in the City's tort payouts over the past 23 years - a 2,500% increase since 1978, from $21.4 million to more than $500 million in Fiscal Year 2003.

Juries have not hesitated to add many zeros to awards, both for pain and suffering and economic damages, based on inflated projections manufactured by economists. Although trial judges and appellate courts may reduce these verdicts to some extent, the verdicts the courts sustain today are no longer in the millions but in the tens of millions. Thus, in a case where two brothers in their late 20's recklessly dove off a 10-foot high, fenced pier and broke their necks, the jury awarded $104 million, $75 million of which were for pain and suffering. Even after Court ordered reductions, the City was still required to pay $19 million to each brother whose own actions caused their injuries. Even when a jury finds the City only slightly at fault, the law requires that the City still foot the whole bill, as when a car driven by a heroin and cocaine addict, who was high at the time of the accident, swerved around a City sanitation truck and plowed into three plaintiffs on the sidewalk. The $17.7 million award to the plaintiffs was entirely the City's to pay, even though the jury found the City only 23% at fault.

Equally troubling is that when a jury awards lost earnings to a plaintiff, that recovery is not reduced by collateral benefits that a plaintiff receives, like a pension. Thus, a sanitation worker who claimed to be disabled by a fall in a garage, received a pension that will pay him ¾ of his salary, tax free - and on top of that was awarded, without any offset for pension, $800,000 in lost earnings.

Tort reform will not - and should not - eliminate tort payouts, but instead will contain them to reasonable amounts while still fairly compensating injured plaintiffs. Even if just half of this past year's payout were saved, that money could be used to hire 5,500 new City workers at $50,000 a year, who could teach our children, make our streets safer, keep our libraries open, and expand our parks and cultural activities.

RECOMMENDED SOLUTIONS:

  1. To prevent double recoveries, tort awards against public entities for lost earnings should be reduced by disability pensions and other similar benefits received by the plaintiff.
    The law now permits public employees (sanitation workers, teachers, police officers and firefighters) to collect both a tax-free disability pension and a tax-free jury award for future lost earnings in personal injury suits brought against their public employers. Consequently, certain City employees, who have retained the right to sue their employer, collect twice from the City for their projected future lost earnings and receive double what they should. The Mayor is asking the State Legislature to pass a law to prevent these double recoveries by requiring that tort awards against public entities for lost earnings be reduced by generous disability pensions and other similar benefits received by public-employee plaintiffs.

  2. A municipal defendant should bear only proportionate responsibility for a plaintiff's injuries.
    This proposal would eliminate joint and several liability by limiting the City's liability to its share of fault as found by the trier of fact. Currently, the City remains liable for all economic losses no matter how small its culpability, and for all pain and suffering damages if found to be 51 percent culpable. The Mayor is asking the State Legislature to approve a law making the City liable for damages only to the extent that it is at fault.

  3. No recovery if a plaintiff is predominantly at fault.
    The mayor is also asking the State Legislature to pass a law barring recovery of damages for any injury where the plaintiff is found to be 50 percent or more at fault.

  4. $250,000 cap on awards for pain and suffering.
    The City also proposes to limit awards for pain and suffering to $250,000. The cap would inject a measure of reasonableness into torts awards, and restore dignity to personal injury litigation.

  5. Municipalities should be sued in the court of claims.
    This reform would shift claims against the City to the State's Court of Claims where judges, not juries, sit as triers of fact. In 1929, when the legislature waived the sovereign immunity previously enjoyed by both the State and its municipalities, only the State was placed within the protective jurisdiction of the Court of Claims; municipalities became subject to suit before juries in the Supreme Court. The State's political subdivisions - and taxpayers - should enjoy the same protection as the State from excessive awards. To achieve this will require a constitutional amendment which the City has proposed. These reforms would expedite and restore objectivity to tort litigation.


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