There was a fascinating article in Bloomberg last week discussing how more and more patients in China are resolving their disputes with malpracticing physicians by killing the doctors. Not only that, more and more Chinese are happy about it. This is obviously a terrible, terrible thing. But there’s a lesson here for us. And no, the lesson is not to give the NRA any more kooky ideas. (“Hey, now that we’ve got all these great Stand Your Ground laws, lets try to arm more hospital patients!") Rather, the lesson has to do with what can happen when innocent, injured people – or their parents, their families - know they have no legal recourse or way to seek justice before a fair and unbiased jury.
You might think that we have no need to worry. We have the Seventh Amendment and state constitutions and laws everywhere guaranteeing the right to civil jury trial. While that may be true, we are reaching a new level of disrespect for the civil jury system in this country that should start frightening everyone.
Let’s start with today’s news that the State of Virginia is fighting the two families who won a verdict last week against the State for helping to cause the Virginia Tech massacre five years ago, during which 33 were killed. The jury found that the State was negligent for delaying alerting the campus that a killer was on the loose. After listening to all the evidence in the case, the jury said the families deserved $4 million each. Little did they know – because they were not told – that the state had a $1 million liability cap. Attorneys for the parents are trying to fight the cap, and the state is fighting them – and, we might add, the power, authority and integrity of the jury system.
The right to have disputes decided by a panel of fellow citizens is cited in the Declaration of Independence and explicitly confirmed in the constitutions of Texas and the United States. But new statistics show that the right to “trial by jury” is quietly and steadily disappearing thanks to a mixture of tort reform laws and Texas appellate court decisions that have made it more difficult for parties in a lawsuit to have their disputes decided by juries.
By the way, this business of not telling hard-working jurors that state lawmakers have “capped” damages is nothing new. Read this story about a heartbreaking California case. Nor is it news how angry jurors get when they find out that their efforts to be fair and just have been cheapened and devalued by politicians. And if they’re angry, imagine how angry the families might be. Just sayin’.