Time to affirm the purpose of tort law

The Madison County Record Oct. 1, 2011, 11:47am

You see it happen in some fundraising organizations. People get together and form a group to advance a worthy cause and then start raising funds to support the group's efforts. Raising the funds is a means to an end.

Next thing you know, the cause has taken a back seat to raising money. Fundraising is now an end in itself, and the cause is a means to that end.

Nobody planned it that way. It's just that you have to have money to do what you want to do, and concentrating too hard on getting that money can make you forget why you wanted it.

At this point, someone – maybe someone outside the group who's not caught up in the fundraising mania -- needs to yell stop, splash some cold water in everyone's face, and say, "Listen folks, I think we've put the cart before the horse."

The evolution of tort law sometimes follows a similar progression.

The purpose of tort law is to protect people and to provide for redress when harm is done. Toward that end, it seeks to identify the persons responsible for that harm and compel them to compensate the victims.

That compensation is a means to an end, but what if it becomes an end in itself? What if compensation is so generous and easy to obtain that it encourages the filing of dubious claims and the advancement of specious arguments?

Suits against tobacco manufacturers by nonsmokers allegedly affected by "secondhand smoke" are one recent perversion of the tort system. Suits claiming secondhand asbestos exposure are another.

The Illinois Supreme Court will soon rule on a secondhand exposure claim against CSX Transportation – made by a chain-smoking woman who blamed her illness on exposure to asbestos fibers on her husband's work clothes some 40 years earlier.

The Court should affirm that the purpose of tort law is to protect the public, not to enrich certain plaintiffs and their attorneys.

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