How personal injury lawsuits – and juries – improve safety

How personal injury lawsuits – and juries – improve safety

For more than 200 years, juries have been impaneled in courts throughout to determine the facts in civil lawsuits. The founders believed that the right to a jury trial is a fundamental right. Most Americans likely understand the importance of the jury in a criminal case. Fewer recognize that the framers guaranteed the right to a jury through the Seventh Amendment to resolve many types of civil disputes. The idea of resolving disputes over personal injury through the civil process was not invented on this continent. It dates back to medieval times in the common law adopted by our founders. It also dates back in some form to many ancient societies.

In general, in the common law, people who suffered injury do to the wrongdoing of another could sue to recover damages. The jury system was used to help ensure that those in power, politically or financially, could not avoid liability merely do to the position. At its core, tort law developed to hold wrongdoers liable for the harm they caused, rather than placing the costs on the shoulders of innocent victims. 

It Is Not Just About The Money

As tort law developed in the United States into the 20th century, big corporations including the insurance companies looked for ways to demonize the idea of the personal injury lawsuit, hoping to put a stop to the constitutionally authorized power of the jury to determine damages. At the same time, studies show that personal injury lawsuits serve to improve safety.

Back in 1916, the well-respected judge Benjamin Cardozo ruled that a car manufacturer could be held liable for injuries caused by a defective wheel on a Buick that collapsed, leading to significant injuries for an innocent victim, according to Ralph Nader. While lawmakers and regulatory agencies often create laws and regulations to improve safety in the automotive industry, studies have shown that the potential for a personal injury lawsuit may have more influence on product safety than federal or state regulations, according to Epidemiological Reviews.

Studies Show The Impact Lawsuits Have On Safety Decisions

A study ordered by the White House in the mid-seventies determined that a small majority of manufacturers consider the prospect of litigation when making decisions about product safety. The Federal Interagency Task Force on Product Liability determined that tort liability lawsuits had a positive impact on consumer safety.

A few years later, the Rand Corporation conducted a study that determined that liability concerns had the greatest influence on safety decisions among manufacturers of consumer products. The research found that personal injury lawsuits were more influential than regulations in improving product safety. The forward-thinking safety improvements are vital in avoiding accidents in the first place.

Personal injury litigation is more than a cost-benefit analysis for manufacturers. Courts require the parties to share relevant information to help ensure the jury has the information it needs to find the truth. The discovery process involved in a personal injury lawsuit requires manufacturers to air their dirty laundry, which can act as a significant deterrent to moving dangerous products into the market, at a price that is designed to overcome future litigation costs.

In 1978, a jury found that Ford Motor Company knew that the placement of the gas tank on the Ford Pinto included serious risk of injury if the vehicle was involved in an accident. The publicity that the company knew of the risks involved and decided to do nothing about the danger created a publicity nightmare for the manufacturer. Ford recalled the Pinto and made safety modifications after the jury rendered its verdict. Personal injury claims often uncover product flaws that lead to large-scale recalls, making our world safer.

In the day-to-day world, people may be exposed to many risks. Regulatory fines for design and manufacturing defects creates an incentive to add a few cents to the price of a product to cover any potential fines. Leaving fact-finding authority in the hands of a jury, on the other hand, levels the playing field for individual consumers who may not otherwise have the power to take on big business alone – a concept well understood as a founding principle of our country.

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