How Civil Litigation Can Advance Our Society

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civil litigationThe settlements being paid out in civil litigation cases involving police misconduct are making our communities safer by improving the quality of service provided by its law enforcement personnel. And it’s not due to moral or political pressures – rather it’s being done to save the insurance companies money. This is just one way in which civil litigation can help make societal improvements that might otherwise take years.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, “How Insurance Companies Can Force Bad Cops Off the Job”, the companies that provide liability insurance to small and mid-sized community police departments are becoming alarmed by the increasing number of big payouts for civil lawsuits in police misconduct cases. In some communities, the problem is so bad that insurance companies can no longer afford to provide liability coverage.

Large cities collect enough from taxes and other fees that they can afford to “self-insure” their police departments; however, smaller communities don’t have access to these resources; a single payout in police misconduct suit could result in bankruptcy. City governments in several states, including California, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Ohio, have had to disband their police departments after losing insurance coverage.

A Financial Incentive with a Societal Benefit

In an attempt to reduce the number of these cases, many insurance providers are demanding that police departments implement new policies, update training and dismiss problem officers in exchange for continuing their coverage.  It’s an approach that provides police departments and local governments with a financial incentive to adopt policies and provide officer training aimed at reducing incidents of police misconduct.

Irwindale California’s Solution to Police Misconduct

The Atlantic article tells the story of what happened when the Irwindale, California, police department was threatened with being shut down when insurance companies became unwilling to provide coverage because of excessive police misconduct.

In August 2013, the police department in Irwindale, a small town near Los Angeles, was facing an existential crisis. Three officers had recently been accused of serious crimes; there were 14 internal investigations underway. Nearly $2 million in settlements had been paid out over a five-year period.

The city’s insurer, the California Joint Powers Insurance Authority, was threatening to revoke Irwindale’s liability insurance unless City Hall, promtping the Irwindale Police department to take significant action to address the problem of corruption inside the department.

Losing their liability insurance would essentially shut down the Irwindale Police Department.

In order to maintain their insurance coverage, the CJPIA required Irwindale police department officials to adopt a “performance improvement plan” aimed at reforming the dysfunctional department. They gave the police department 18 months to clean up its act in order to keep its coverage.

It was determined that, due to budgetary concerns, the city had failed to invest in sufficient training for its officers. Faced with losing their insurance, the city dedicated money for training sessions for the officers. The officers received about 1,000 hours of additional training under the CJPIA guidelines.

While progress has been slow, claims against the Irwindale have gone down since the performance improvement plan was implemented.

A Free Market Solution to Creating Change

Some of the areas in which insurers are getting involved include policies pertaining to high-speed pursuits, the use of force and hiring and firing personnel; prescribing additional officer training; performing department audits; and implementing more sophisticated screening procedures for new hires.

Even as the Trump administration prepares to minimize the Department of Justice’s role in police oversight, free market forces are working to reduce the incidents of police misconduct.

Civil litigation forcing changes for the better in police departments is just one example of the way that civil cases promote issues of public concern.

Financial punishments levied by civil courts can have far-reaching effects in a wide range of issues that affect everyday citizens. Civil complaints against negligent doctors, for example, have the capacity to force improvements in health care professionals who can’t afford to lose their medical malpractice insurance because of mistakes and negligent decisions. Corporations who pay hefty fines for making products that are unsafe are more likely to put public health ahead of profits when developing future products.

Much like civil lawsuits have prompted changes in police departments across the nation, they have and will continue to promote change in all other areas of our lives, proving the idea that a robust tort system is critical to ensure that bad actors are weeded out and top performers excel in our society.