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Our legal system helps protect taxpayers

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Most know that our legal system helps increase our physical safety — from the original Ford Pinto case to more recent recalls of unsafe drugs.

But something many people don't know is that our civil justice system also saves people a significant amount of money, both as consumers and taxpayers. Of course, it isn't a huge leap to understand that a safer product can also be a money-saving one. If something is safer, it may cost more to produce, but it won't have to be replaced as often — the basis of so much advertising.

But a safer product also likely won't cause or otherwise prevent an expensive injury. That saves the consumer money, too.

Most realize this but rarely think about it. Corporations include the cost of insurance and the costs of being sued, and losing those suits, in how much the product costs to sell. The Ford Pinto case, in which it was discovered the company compared the cost of including a safer gas tank that wouldn't explode against how much it would have to pay out in death benefits — and chose to risk the explosions — is something that came to light only after a lawsuit was filed.

Which is an important point: It was a lawsuit that first brought Ford's risk-taking to light. And today, lawsuits continue to not only help keep unsafe products off the market but also help taxpayers recoup money. Whether it is risky chemicals or unsafe drugs or products that should never be sold, our civil justice system helps protect our safety.

Those same lawsuits often help protect taxpayers, too. Every year, there are literally millions of dollars returned to the taxpayers from insurance companies after lawsuits are filed.

Imagine for a moment what happens when someone is hurt by an unsafe drug or a drunken driver. Who pays for their care? If they have insurance, the insurance company does.

But what if they don't, as millions don't? Taxpayers will. Whether through official programs like Medicaid, another Department of Health or Department of Welfare program or free care at hospitals, costs passed along to other patients and taxpayers. That's not fair.

And what if the person is unable to work, risking losing their home or taking care of their family? An all-too-common outcome is that they end up on welfare simply because someone else hurt them. How is that fair to the person injured or to taxpayers? It isn't.

Our legal system — both criminal and civil — is the envy of the world because it holds responsible parties liable for the harm they cause. That means not just for their health care, but also for their living expenses if they can't work. It is this combination, particularly for children who are harmed, that can lead to large verdicts. If a 7-year-old is hurt and needs around-the-clock care for the next 60 years, it will be expensive. If the responsible parties don't pay for that care, taxpayers will.

This fact is one of the reasons why the recent changes to the legal system here in Pennsylvania — effectively eliminating what had long been a pillar of our legal system, joint-and-several liability — is so troubling for victims and for taxpayers. It sounds good in theory — everyone should be responsible only for the portion of the harm they caused. But in reality, it harms people who are hurt while potentially shifting ultimate responsibility to taxpayers.

If a group of kids decides to play baseball in someone's yard, and one hits the ball through a window, who is responsible for paying to fix the window? Just the hitter? The pitcher? Or the entire group who made the decision to play next to windows?

Of course, it's the entire group. It was a shared decision to play there and the responsibility should be shared.

In real life, this happens all the time. Think again about the unsafe drug that harms a child, requiring around-the-clock care for the next 60 years. Who should be responsible? The pharmacy that sold the drug? The doctor who prescribed it? Or the drugmaker who made it?

Prior to the elimination of joint-and-several liability, all could be held responsible, guaranteeing that the child gets the care and support needed regardless of who bore the "most" responsibility. Now it is possible that only the organization with the least ability to pay is held liable, breaking that company and pushing the responsibility for caring for the child onto taxpayers.

The tort reform movement, backed by tens of millions of dollars, has done a good job at distorting the facts about our legal system and the protections it provides the public. While it's understandable that companies and their insurance companies want to minimize the risk of lawsuits, the easiest way to do that is to make safer products or provide better care.

Our legal system not only helps produce safer medical care and safer products, it helps protect consumers and taxpayers.

Scott Cooper, an attorney with Schmidt Kramer in Harrisburg, is state president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

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