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Poll Backs Insurance Industry Priority : Public Wants Civil Suit Reforms, Survey Says

March 09, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

By an overwhelming majority, Americans think that the nation's civil justice system needs reform, including elimination of the so-called deep-pockets doctrine, according to a public opinion survey by Louis Harris & Associates. The results were made public Friday.

"The public wants greater efficiency in the civil justice system at a lower cost to both individuals and society," said Humphrey Taylor, president of the New York-headquartered polling organization, whose survey was paid for by Aetna Life & Casualty. "The poll (indicates) . . . citizen awareness that the system is being abused and functions in a way that undermines its fairness and utility."

The insurance industry has been championing reform as a means of reducing the uncertainty in assessing risks in liability areas for which the cost of insurance has become all but prohibitively expensive, if coverage is even available.

Even though the 2,130 respondents were reminded that reforms might affect their ability to recover damages, the survey found that:

- By a margin of 71% to 26%, respondents favored doing away with "joint-and-several liability," the deep-pockets doctrine under which one defendant in a damage suit may be required to pay a disproportionate share of damages because others responsible lack the resources.

- By 67% to 29%, they supported repealing the "collateral source" rule under which claimants can receive court awards for damages already paid by an insurer.

- By 57% to 40%, respondents said manufacturers should be free from liability if their products met safety standards at the time they were made; by 71% to 26%, they favored changing product liability laws to require that, before damages can be awarded, manufacturers be shown to have been careless or negligent for injuries resulting from use of their products.

- By 78% to 17%, they supported limiting punitive damages to flagrantly negligent and malicious behavior.

On the other hand, 73% said they believed that the system enables injured parties to be adequately compensated by those responsible.

"The survey results show a pattern of criticism of the operations of the civil justice system," Taylor said. "Americans believe that it is overused and that the problem is growing. The public values its access to tort relief and supports farther-reaching measures than most states have so far adopted to reduce abuses of the system."

Though Aetna commissioned the survey and is distributing copies of it, Taylor added, Louis Harris & Associates takes sole responsibility for the topics selected and the wording of questions asked, as well as the findings and interpretations.

"A more fair and more balanced system will benefit society as a whole," William O. Bailey, Aetna's vice chairman, said in a statement. "The unfairness, inefficiency and unpredictability of our current civil justice system hurt all of us."

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