Recently, on the radio program “Your Turn — Meeting Nonsense with Common Sense” the Center’s Corporate Counsel, Renee Giachino interviewed Pam Philp, the Executive Director of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, about the goals of the recently-formed organization and the need legal reform in Florida.
What follows are excerpts from the interview:
GIACHINO: It is my extreme pleasure to welcome Pam Philp to the program. Pam heads up a new organization here in Florida dedicated to the enormously important task of changing Florida’s civil court system. Pam Philp is the Executive Director of the Florida Justice Reform Institute.
Welcome to “Your Turn,” Pam.
PHILP: Hi, and thank you for having me.
GIACHINO: Pam, your organization was recently formed, as I understand, with the support of the Chamber of Commerce. What was the impetus for the formation of the organization?
PHILP: We are just about a month old now. The impetus for it really is an age-old tale. With the pro-business legislators and governor that we have in the state we realized that we have not taken full advantage of this in the business community. Floridians, unfortunately, are seeing our judicial system become subject to more and more frivolous lawsuits. The business community in the past has had a number of issues on its plate each year, and it was finally determined by a united business community that it was time to have one concerted effort focused solely on legal reform.
GIACHINO: What are the different goals and timetables ― and I understand that you are still in your infancy stage so I don’t mean to catch you off guard, but have you set up specific goals and timetables to begin to effectuate reform in our civil litigation system?
PHILP: We sure have. Our missions and goals have several components, and this is going to be a very long-term effort. We are looking at probably ten years. Our main goals immediately are to get the organization set up, get a major grassroots effort and obviously, to see what we can get passed legislatively this year. We do have a number of issues on our new website ― which is www.fljustice.org ― that we will be pushing for this year. The governor is going to be supporting some tort reform issues, as are the House and Senate. So I encourage people to follow what is happening this year.
Beyond this legislative session, what we will be doing is starting to track a lot of our public officers. We would like to recruit and retain as many pro-reform candidates as we can and hopefully get rid of a few who are beholden to the trial lawyers right now.
We are going to be launching an extensive consumer and business education program, and we will be starting to track some judicial decisions ― which is something that has not been done in Florida to date.
GIACHINO: I know. I have experienced that myself in the work that I have done for the Center for Individual Freedom as Corporate Counsel. Very often I try and track, in Florida and even on a national level, some of these frivolous lawsuits. Obviously many of them settle even before they get published, but even those that don’t get settled, it is very difficult to keep track of the cases and read opinions. I think the general public does not realize how terribly clogged our court system is by so many frivolous lawsuits and that the people who are truly deserving to go into court are having to wait so long behind all of these ridiculous cases.
PHILP: Absolutely. Unfortunately a lot of folks are not aware of the tort tax that we pay. Every item that we purchase at the store ― whether it’s a bottle of ketchup or bike, a lot of manufacturers’ prices have built-in costs just to cover their liability costs ― all due to some of these frivolous lawsuits.
It’s not about letting these businesses off the hook where they are grossly negligent but only holding them accountable for their fair share. I think I can touch on this by highlighting the cases in the asbestos area. You know we have our court systems, particularly in Florida, clogged by these asbestos suits and unfortunately folks who truly are sick and the sickest are not getting the help that they need because a lot of attorneys are going after folks who aren’t sick just to get the money. The folks who really should be getting the help from our judicial system are unfortunately passing away before they have the opportunity to get help.
GIACHINO: You mention the tort tax. Legal reform is and has been a big issue both at the state and national level. It is impossible to pick up a newspaper or watch a news program without reading or hearing about this group suing this corporation or this class action against that corporation. I recently read that America’s litigation system is the world’s most expensive, draining more than $233 billion from the U.S. economy and costing the average American family of four more than $3,200 a year in higher prices, higher insurance rates and higher health care costs. Why is that and how is it that we have reached this terrible state?
PHILP: I wish I could answer the question as to why. You’re right, in 2003 our tort system cost $240 billion and I think people would be amazed to know that they are paying approximately $900 per year per person no matter what you do. Small business alone pays $88 billion a year for the tort system.
You asked a great question in “Why?”. I think part of the solution to that will be electing pro-reform candidates and really paying closer attention to where the trial lawyers’ money is going and who is voting for business and voting for the people instead of voting for the lawyers.
GIACHINO: So will part of your mission be – I mean you mentioned tracking public officers and trying to retain and recruit those who are pro-legal reform. I assume, then, that part of your effort will be to put out voter guides for people so they can better understand candidate positions on these issues?
PHILP: It sure will. And our website will have updated information throughout legislative sessions and election years. On the flip side of that we will also be strongly supporting, however and wherever we can, our strong pro-reform candidates. The Panhandle has a great representative for legal reform in Representative Don Brown and Speaker Allan Bense is also a great representative for the business community and ensuring that the government does not add more burdens to the average family’s grocery bill and in that is a lot of the tort tax.
GIACHINO: What role does the judicial system play in the whole arena of tort tax?
PHILP: It is strictly based in their decisions. They are obviously setting precedent that is outside of current law and what we would like to see is our judiciary go back to interpreting the law rather than making the law. Our own Supreme Court made a ruling on a street light issue this year that means that every single person will be paying more money in their utility bill, simply based on a ruling outside of what we believe is constitutional.
There are a number of issues. I do not want to make a general statement that the judiciary is bad. Obviously we are huge proponents of all of our elected officials. But the problems that we have right now are putting us in a medical crisis. I think we have seen in some of the medical malpractice situations, Floridians are not able to access as much medical care as they need because of the skyrocketing costs of insurance.
GIACHINO: What do you mean by a street light issue?
PHILP: One of our issues this year – and one of the business community’s issues right now that we are getting united behind is what we refer to as “street light liability.” The Florida Supreme Court, in a move that increased all electric bills, has subjected utility companies with the threat of expensive lawsuits which will in essence hold them liable for accidents or incidents that happen near a burned-out street light. In other words, if I am standing near a street light that burned out 30 minutes ago and someone comes down the road and shoots me or runs me over with a car, the utility company would be held liable for that. The ruling’s broad and expansive language can expand liability to other companies and can make life even more expensive for Floridians. We are hoping that the legislature will enact some common sense limitations on this.
GIACHINO: When you mentioned street light issues I assumed that was what you were talking about, but that sure has broad ramifications. If they can hold the electric company liable if a street light goes out, where does it end?
PHILP: Another one that we are trying to get through this year is premises liability. This is something that I was not even aware of until I started with the Institute. Florida right now allows a business to be sued for damages resulting from a crime committed on its property even if the business had absolutely no knowledge or association with the criminal or the crime. We simply don’t believe that folks should be held accountable for other people’s actions. Again, it is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their own gross negligence, but if I am a small business owner and someone gets robbed in my parking lot, I think that the criminal should be held liable and not me, if I certainly did not foresee that that would happen. It’s just making sure that we restore fairness, equality and justice to our legal system.
GIACHINO: That’s right. Pam, if it’s okay, I have a caller on the line with a question for you.
PHILP: Sure, go ahead.
CALLER: Good afternoon. Did you mention Representative Dave Murzin?
PHILP: I did not, but he is also one of our champions in the legislature.
CALLER: That’s right. He has done a lot on medical malpractice and so we are real pleased with him. To me, I separate out business. I am a real fan of mom-and-pop businesses, and I separate them out. What doctors go through ― they are more likely to be responsible because their personal assets are at stake in a lawsuit if it was to go over the amount of insurance that they are carrying. Whereas the big corporations are out of the liability loop ― even the CEO’s personal assets are never touched. So, until we reform the way corporations can get out of liability without worrying about their personal assets, I think the large businesses are not as careful and are not as responsible because it is just a cost of doing business and it does not come out of their personal assets.
GIACHINO: Let me throw this out too, because I think it is a very interesting point that you make and I want to take it one step further and see if you and Pam agree with me. I think some of it also gets down to personal responsibility and reputation at stake. I know plenty of physicians in the community who, if they have a frivolous lawsuit filed against them, it is their reputation at stake and they tell their lawyers “I don’t care if it is going to cost me more to fight this than to settle it, my reputation is at stake and if I can’t see this through to the end and have a judge rule this as frivolous, if I settle, then it has to be reported to the National Practitioner’s Databank and then it is also a mark in my chart and my reputation.”
So, as unpopular as this thought may be, in some respects corporations may hold a little of the blame for what has happened in the legal reform arena because there is, in fact, the thought that in some respects it is less expensive to go ahead and settle ― even the most frivolous of lawsuits ― instead of paying the exorbitant legal fees that they would be faced with.
PHILP: That’s right. And it is oftentimes less expensive to settle, but we should not find that acceptable. We talk about corporations and businesses as if it is one evil empire out there. What people sometimes forget is that businesses and corporations employ us and keep our economy going and that is who pays for a large percentage of things that we benefit from. When they get sued, and it is not their fault but they are being held liable for it, those costs get passed along to the consumer. Again, it all does go back to personal responsibility – there are certainly people who do things wrong and there are people who do things wrong everywhere but to hold corporations responsible for more than their fair share is not acceptable. We would not accept it if people started suing individuals this way and we should not accept it when they sue our employers this way.
CALLER: But the large corporations cannot be held personally responsible with their own personal assets so I feel they are not as responsible and I have seen the large corporations put out mom-and-pop businesses so I guess I am more for the small business.
PHILP: One thing that legal reform would assist us all with in terms of building our economy is helping small businesses. Right now our court system is costing small businesses billions and billions of dollars and those are people, who could be employed. It’s just getting back to common sense solutions when things do go wrong.
Florida right now is ranked 38th in the country with our legal reform system. If we are looking to bring companies to Florida to employ our people we need to improve that.
I was happy to hear you bring up Representative Murzin. I would encourage everyone listening who does share the legal reform train of thought to call their legislator and encourage them to support legal reform this year.
GIACHINO: Pam, you preempted my next question – that is, what should the average person do to make a difference in legal reform?
PHILP: There are several things the average Floridian can do. One, is to visit our website and learn more about how this impacts the average Floridian. One thing we would like to do is get a big grassroots effort behind our legislators who are willing to put themselves out there to improve this this year. What they can do is call their local legislator and urge them to support legal reform this year. Call folks like Don Brown and Allan Bense and thank them for supporting the business community.
GIACHINO: Could you give out your website address again please, Pam?
PHILP: Sure, it is www.fljustice.org.
GIACHINO: That’s the website address for the Florida Justice Reform Institute.
PHILP: It is under construction and, as you mentioned, we are newly formed and we will be changing it a lot over the next several weeks and we will have more information about how people can get involved. We plan to have several volunteer opportunities that will be localized. Again this is all local and affects each and every one of us each time we purchase a product.
GIACHINO: We have another question from a caller. Go ahead.
CALLER: She has mentioned most of the representatives in our area who are going to try to help but we still have two that we have not heard about and I would like to find out what she has to say about those two. And let’s not mince words. If they are not going to get on board and help, we need to know about it so that we can get on them. We are talking about Representative Benson and Representative Evers. I would like to know what they are doing to help and if they are not doing anything, let us know because we cannot help you if you do not help us by letting us know what is going on.
PHILP: We sure will and we will be putting information up on the web. I have not spoken to either one of those legislators personally so I do not want to speak for them. But I will speak on my personal experiences with them in the past and they have been very supportive of all common sense reforms in the past so I don’t see that they won’t be supportive here. Again, I don’t want to speak for them. I would urge you to contact them ― I know it means a lot more to hear from you than from someone in Tallahassee. We will be letting people know. Again, we really want to support the folks who are putting themselves out there. Like I said, they both have been very supportive of common sense reform in the past so we are going to look forward to working with all of them.
GIACHINO: Well, we will make sure to visit your website often, particularly after you get it up and running so that we can be kept abreast of tracking our public officers and we can learn more about the educational programs you will be offering to support these tort reform issues.
Once again, Pam Philp, the Executive Director of the Florida Justice Reform Institute. The website is www.fljustice.org. It’s a new organization tasked with changing Florida’s civil court system. Best of luck, Pam, and we greatly appreciate your efforts in Florida and taking the time to talk with us about it.
PHILP: Thank you so much for having me.
GIACHINO: Thank you and good luck. Hopefully, we will be in touch with you soon.
PHILP: I look forward to it.February 22, 2005