Jon Stewart is right on many things, just not on so-called tort reform

By David Arkush and Christine Hines

Jon Stewart, the popular host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and “America’s most trusted newsman,”  regularly imparts an astute critique of American political affairs and media.

The comic’s recent two-part exchange with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, for instance, elicited – in between the funny jabs – thoughtful, nuanced discussion on policy, politics, and the president. As Daily Show fans though, we cringed a little during his chat with O’Reilly when they briefly discussed so-called “tort reform,” the phrase used by the health industry and big business to advocate taking away your access to the courts

O’Reilly first broached the issue when Stewart was a guest on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor. He complained that President Obama could have worked with Republicans during the health care reform debate by adding “tort reform” to the bill. Stewart shot back that the president said he was willing to compromise on the issue, a priority for Republicans, even though it wouldn’t save much in health care costs. In their second conversation, this time at the Daily Show. Stewart blasted the extent of corruption, in media and finances (financial services?), and then strangely expressed a willingness to offer “right wing tort reform,” as he called it. It wasn’t clear why he mentioned it. Perhaps to suggest he would bargain on the issue in exchange for measures that curb corruption.

We’re with him on the need to end corruption. Government and corporate accountability are at a serious low point; we’ve proposed and supported a number of important fixes ourselves, here and here, and here. But Stewart (and President Obama!) are wrong to say they would compromise on “tort reform.” That’s a little like saying you’re willing to compromise on the right to vote. Access to court when someone hurts you—whether the government, a business, or an individual—is a fundamental American right, and we’d all be in big trouble without it.

A willingness to sacrifice access to the courts is a risky suggestion, especially for patients injured at the hands of careless medical providers. If we leave patients exposed to a provider’s negligence, and then limit that provider’s responsibility to patients, the only sources left to pay for the patients’ injuries are patients and taxpayers (i.e. Medicare and Medicaid). But over half of personal bankruptcies are already caused by medical expenses, and Medicare and Medicaid spending are already skyrocketing. It’s much better to have a system in which people who cause harm pay for it, rather than sticking the victims or the taxpayers with the tab.

As it turns out, lawsuits are useful not just to the people who sue. They are being used by medical professionals to teach how to prevent future harm to patients.

The big corporations who fund the “tort reform” movement—like Exxon and BP, AIG, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—don’t want to make the courts work better; they only seek to profit. That means stopping people from holding them accountable for wrongdoing. They promote their positions through misleading studies, front groups, and massive campaign contributions and independent expenditures on elections. Talk about corruption.

Jumping on Stewart’s off-the-cuff comments may seem a little like nit-picking, and it probably is, but this is a serious issue that is too easily dismissed, even by progressives. If you ever find yourself squaring off against a corporate Goliath—or for that matter the government—access to court is your slingshot. Keep it by your side and don’t give it up.

David Arkush is director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Christine Hines is the consumer and civil justice counsel for Public Citizen.