It is no wonder that tort law and the civil legal process in America gets no respect. It’s a crap shoot. There is no reliability. There is no consistency. There is no reasonable predictability. Too often the ones who end up paying the damages are not the ones who caused them. Too often the damage goes uncompensated altogether and the wrongdoer skates free.
Contrary to popular belief, the fault does not arise with the lawyers. They are required to work within the system. They are merely following the rules on behalf of their clients. Nor does the fault lie with the plaintiffs. They are merely seeking recovery for their loss by means of the only remedies available to them under the law.
When it comes to the legal process the state has a far greater advantage over the individual in protecting and enforcing its rights and interests. The courts and the legal system is far more responsive to the state largely because the legal system is part of the state. The state comes first; individuals second, if at all.
The state has the benefit of the criminal process at its disposal. It has the police power to arrest, detain, incarcerate, and penalize wrongdoers instantly, before trial even, while the individual can only file a complaint and wait for relief while the wheels of justice turn slowly. The state is far more likely to secure justice that the individual.
When an injured individual is lucky enough to finally obtain some measure of justice, it’s likely to be lopsided and often punitive to those who did not commit the wrong.
Case in point: A long term female employee at AT&T, who endured vicious religious discrimination for years from fellow employees, was finally awarded a lopsided verdict which had the effect of penalizing everyone expect those who committed the wrongdoing.
The lady had no problems until she converted to Islam in 2005, after which her work environment became hostile immediately, and she experienced harassment almost every day from her co-workers making insulting comments about her clothing and religion.
She was repeatedly called a terrorist "towel-head" and asked if she was going to blow up the building. The abuse came to a head when her boss snatched off her head scarf exposing her hair.
She called an employee help line shortly after the harassment began, asking the company to provide sensitivity training for her co-workers, but "It was a worthless call," she said. "Nothing ever changed."
Three years later the abuse continued so she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which launched an investigation. That only made her co-workers angry leading the the final encounter with her boss. She became so stressed out that she couldn't return to work.
She asked that her boss be removed or that she be transferred, but neither happened. She was fired after not returning to work for nine months. The incident was hard on her both mentally and physically and tore her family apart.
Recently, a jury awarded her $120,000 in lost wages and other actual damages in her discrimination case against AT&T, together with $5 million in punitive damages. Attorney fees will be added later by a judge. It amounts to the largest jury verdict for a workplace discrimination case in Missouri history.
She ultimately won’t receive anywhere near $5 million because Missouri law caps such awards at five times the actual damage amount, plus attorney fees. This, of course, begs the question as to why the jury was permitted to assess such a ridiculously high amount of punitive damages in the first place.
What’s wrong with this picture?
There is no question that this lady is entitled to fair compensation for her ordeal, and her actual monetary damages should be paid by her employer, AT&T. But the punitive damages will be paid by the innocent shareholders of the company – ultimately the innocent customers -- not the guilty scoundrels who harassed the poor woman to the point of losing her job.
This wronged individual had no proper remedy available to prevent her damages from spiraling out of control. She had to wait seven long years for her day in court and even then it was a crap shoot; she might have lost and wound up with nothing.
The wrongdoers who actually caused the damage have skated free. They should face serious consequences for their conduct but they won’t under our system of civil justice.
That’s what’s wrong with tort in America.