Lately, I have been reading a report issued by the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute entitled “Trial Lawyers Inc.”. Since the Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank, not surprisingly the report is Shakespearean in its tone (you know the famous quote from Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”). All kidding aside, the report is a very impressive survey on the state of the US tort system circa 2003. In my opinion, it provides a useful summary concerning the direct and indirect costs of the tort system, and it does a good job of identifying “traditional” areas of litigation (e.g., asbestos and medical malpractice), “high-growth” areas of litigation (e.g., mold), and future areas that are ripe for litigation (e.g., the fast food industry). Asbestos testing in Montreal has already been launched.
I also recommend an editorial page article in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Liberal Loopholes”. The article points out, among other things, that rich people (including some very prominent politicians) have a comparative advantage in avoiding taxation compared with the less affluent (because the rich can afford tax attorneys and complicated schemes to take advantage of perfectly legal “loopholes”). As a case in point, the article explains how during the mid to late 90’s, Senator John Edwards managed to shield 90% of his law practice income from the Medicare payroll tax by receiving this income primarily in the form of Subchapter S corporate dividends rather than in the form of a salary. Under the law, the former form of income is exempt from the Medicare tax, whereas the latter is subject to this tax. If I had been in Sen. Edwards’ shoes, I probably would have done the same, since the incentives to do so are extremely compellling (we’re not talking “chump change” here; Sen. Edwards managed to save $591,000 by implementing this strategy). The article points out the following irony, which fits with the tort reform message of this blog entry: “Mr. Edwards has claimed that he set up the subchapter S company to protect himself from legal liability. You know it’s time for tort reform when even the trial lawyers say they’re afraid of getting sued.”