In this lawyer’s opinion, the debate over tort reform has bogged down as the result of too much legalese. As an aid to non-lawyers everywhere, I’ve prepared a short glossary to help keep track of the terms used most often in the tort reform debate.
Advocates of tort reform may not agree with some of my definitions. This illustrates an important feature of the tort reform debate: It’s impossible to please everybody.
1. Trial Lawyer. A trial lawyer is any lawyer who appears in court, no matter whether he’s appearing for the plaintiff or the defense. In the tort reform debate, however, the term is often used pejoratively to refer only to those lawyers who file lawsuits, that is, “plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
2. Plaintiffs’ Lawyers. Plaintiffs’ lawyers are a subset of trial lawyers who always appear for the person who has brought the lawsuit. The use of the word “person” is intentional, since lawyers representing corporations that bring lawsuits, though technically lawyers for the plaintiff, are not plaintiffs’ lawyers. They may, however, be “class action lawyers.”
3. Class Action Lawyers. These are lawyers who are trained to work on class actions. The term can refer to the lawyer appearing either for the plaintiff or the defense. In the tort reform debate, however, some exclude from the definition any lawyer who appears for the defendant in a class action. This exclusion is made most often by “tort reformers.”
4. Tort Reformers. These are people who are often employed by industry groups to defend their clients’ reputations when under attack by trial lawyers, plaintiffs’ lawyers, or class action lawyers. Most often, tort reformers are neither lawyers nor “attorneys,” though they are often Republicans.
5. Attorney. An attorney is any lawyer who wishes to sound more important than he actually is. Though attorneys often do not like to admit it, all attorneys are lawyers, and all lawyers are attorneys. This is true even if the person in question is a “defense attorney.”
6. Defense Attorney. This is a lawyer calling himself an attorney who represents the corporations being sued by trial lawyers, plaintiffs’ lawyers, or class action lawyers. Though the defense attorney often pretends to be a tort reformer, he secretly recognizes that without lawsuits, he’d have nothing to do. It is every defense attorney’s fervent wish to receive an assignment to defend a “mass tort.”
7. Mass Tort. A mass tort occurs when a number of injury claims (for example, claims for harm caused by a prescription drug) are filed one by one, individually, which tends to create a huge amount of work for all types of lawyers, including defense lawyers. This is not a problem for the defense lawyer, of course, unless he is already busy working on a “class action.”
8. Class Action. A class action is the type of lawsuit a little guy uses to try to get the attention of a giant corporation after being harmed or cheated. According to tort reformers, class actions are a legalized form of extortion carried out by trial lawyers, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and class action lawyers. Class actions are often cited as Exhibit A in the movement for “tort reform.”
9. Tort Reform. Tort reform is any new law proposed by tort reformers to change the civil justice system, even if the change improves the civil justice system only for large corporations. Though some charge that tort reformers improperly use the word “reform,” tort reformers don’t care. They are also perfectly content to gloss over this point in their “tort reform radio spots.”
10. Tort Reform Radio Spot. This is an ad, paid for by tort reformers, which espouses the view that most of life’s problems are caused by trial lawyers, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and class action lawyers. Persons from these three groups find these radio spots more offensive than Howard Stern, and often turn them off immediately.
This brief glossary of tort reform terms should be used frequently and often during the rest of the political season. Following the presidential election, it can be placed in a drawer. But it shouldn’t be misplaced, since it may become necessary again in 2008, perhaps sooner.
[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]