Four Reasons Christians Should Oppose Issue 1
What is Tort?
A tort is a civil wrong that causes injury, for which a victim can seek damages from an alleged wrongdoer. Tort law provides the means by which a victim can establish the liability of the wrongdoer in a court of law and be awarded damages.
For example, untreated pressure sores can cause extreme pain and death. If a grandmother in a nursing home is neglected to the point that she develops severely infected pressure sores, she could sue the nursing home.
If the jury finds the nursing home liable for causing the injury, they can award whatever amount of money they think compensates her for her pain and suffering, and they may be able to award punitive damages as an incentive for the nursing home to correct their mistreatment of residents. This would not be considered a frivolous lawsuit; it has merit, because the facility’s negligence clearly was responsible for the injury.
What Is Issue 1?
Issue 1 is a proposed constitutional amendment that reforms Arkansas’ tort law in four ways:
(1) limiting attorneys’ contingency fees in civil actions;
(2) limiting awards of punitive damages and non-economic damages in civil actions to $500,000;
(3) allowing the cap on punitive damages to be exceeded in rare instances.
(4) requiring adjustments to the limitations on punitive and non-economic damage awards for inflation or deflation; and
(5) letting the General Assembly make rules of pleading, practice, or procedure—including rules about the admission of evidence in tort lawsuits.
Reason #1 Christians Should Oppose Issue 1: It Puts a Price Tag on Human Life
Capping non-economic damages at $500,000 for a severe injury or death places a dollar value on human life—especially children, stay-at-home moms, and the elderly who have no income and would not be awarded economic damages. After attorney fees and the cost of trying the case are taken out, the family members of someone killed by another person’s negligence would receive very little compensation for their pain and suffering. This means companies will be free to cut corners, knowing that in many cases $500,000 is the most they will have to pay for killing or injuring someone.
Reason #2 Christians Should Oppose Issue 1: It Hurts the Poor
Issue 1 tips the scales of justice in favor of the wealthy and powerful by capping the amount of money juries can award for non-economic damages. Wealthy individuals who file lawsuits will receive a lot of money under Issue 1 while poor individuals and their families will receive no more than $500,000.
There is no cap for economic damages. If a well-to-do, employed person is injured and unable to work, a court can award him as much as it deems he might have lost in income for the rest of his life. That might be millions of dollars. But a person with little money to begin with and no income can be given no more than $500,000. That may sound like a lot, but attorney fees and the cost of preparing the trial, such as procuring the testimony of expert witnesses, will be taken out of the award, leaving very little to take care of a non-employed person for the rest of her life.
In Texas caps on damages have closed the door of the courthouse for those who are not wealthy, depriving them of their constitutional rights. The cost of preparing for trial coupled with restrictions on the amount of money juries can award make the cases too expensive to pursue.
Lawsuits on behalf of stay-at-home-moms, children, and elderly who have been injured or killed are too costly. Lawyers cannot afford to take these cases and are turning to other types of law or are leaving the state. Many lawyers take only the cases of well-off clients who can show economic damages and receive big awards. Average citizens have difficulty filing lawsuits, because there are few lawyers to represent them. They do not get their day in court.
Jesus gave us two commandments which summarize the Ten Commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and the second, love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). On these we are to base our living. Issue 1 hurts our neighbors who are poor.
Scripture says anyone who withholds justice from widows, orphans, sojourners, downtrodden, oppressed, poor will be cursed (Deuteronomy 27:19) and judged by the Lord (Malachi 3:5). In verse after verse we are commanded not to deny justice to the poor and needy and to defend their rights (Proverbs 31:9).
There is a strong warning in the book of Proverbs. In Proverbs 22:22-23 the Bible says, “Do not rob the poor because he is poor [and defenseless], Nor crush the afflicted [by legal proceedings] at the gate [where the city court is held], For the Lord will plead their case And take the life of those who rob them (Amplified Bible, AMP).
Reason #3 Christians Should Oppose Issue 1: It Undermines Justice
Capping non-economic damages and letting legislators restrict evidence in lawsuits undermines justice. It takes the outcome of a lawsuit out of the hands of a jury and weakens a citizen’s right to a jury trial. Christians serve a God of justice who gave people rules for living. The Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses outline God’s civil justice system. Much of our modern civil justice system is based on these biblical principles.
Within the Law of Moses, we can find a tort system, prohibitions against specific wrongs, and remedies for those wrongs. These laws deal with negligence, liability, compensatory damages, and even punitive damages. Biblically, a few negligent acts that resulted in civil liability include:
- Digging a pit but failing to cover it (Exodus 21:33-34)
- Allowing animals to trespass on the property of another and do harm (Exodus 22:5)
- Kindling a fire but negligently allowing it to get out of control and harm a neighbor’s property (Exodus 22:6)
For each of these, restitution is required. There are cases when payment for lost wages and medical bills are required—just as in our modern system (Exodus 21:18-19).
Punitive damages may also be prescribed. In the case of injury described in Numbers 5:5-8, restitution of actual value, “adding a fifth” or 20% were required. For intentional acts, the punitive damages varied, but were specified. For stealing and killing or selling an ox, the payment is five oxen. If the stolen beast is found alive in possession of the thief, the thief will pay double. (Exodus 22:1-4)
There are several circumstances in which damages can be awarded with no ceiling prescribed by law. God’s system of law served as a means for maintaining justice—a system of laws and consequences to be overseen by a court, a system which provides for equal justice for all, whether rich or poor, old or young, male or female. God calls for no injustice in court. He says show no partiality to the poor and no favoritism to the rich, but judge all fairly (Leviticus 19:15).
In Isaiah 1:17, the Bible says, “Learn to do good. Seek justice, Rebuke the ruthless, Defend the fatherless, Plead for the [rights of the] widow [in court]” (Amplified Bible, AMP). Jesus urged us not to neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In Matthew 23:23, the Bible says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”
As Christians, we have an obligation to see that justice is done for not only ourselves, but others. Those who might benefit from the passage of Issue 1 still have an obligation to be certain that it does not lead to injustice for others.
Reason #4 Christians Should Oppose Issue 1: It Makes Corruption More Likely
Issue 1 lets the Arkansas Legislature restrict evidence that can be presented in lawsuits. It also lets lawmakers make rules about practice, pleading, and procedure—meaning they can try to force people to go through arbitration before having their day in court. Giving politicians power over lawsuits takes away the jury process. The judiciary is no longer independent. Jurors can no longer weigh the evidence in a particular case and decide what they deem right.
The Founding Fathers set up government fully expecting the worst—that the people leading all three branches of government would become corrupt. They made plans to help limit that corruption and prevent all three branches from becoming wicked at the same time and to establish checks and balances among the branches. Consolidating power over lawsuits and giving it to politicians makes it easier for special interests to influence how civil justice is treated in Arkansas. It is easier to corrupt a legislative body than it is a jury.
Jesus urged us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Voting for Issue 1 sets up a new civil justice system in Arkansas that enables the wealthy and powerful to be so shielded from lawsuits that they can hurt the poor without regard for their plight. The passage of Issue 1 cheapens the value of “the least of these.” It puts a price tag on their precious lives, and it ties the hands of judges and juries when the poor are injured through the reckless behavior of others.