Do Personal Injury Lawsuits Make the World Safer?

Personal injury lawsuits are supposed to serve several different purposes:

  1. They’re supposed to compensate someone who was injured due to another person’s carelessness.
  2. They’re supposed to make the person who actually caused a loss to pay for that loss.
  3. They’re supposed to help prevent injuries from resulting in bankruptcy, if the injury was not your fault.
  4. And they are supposed to help make the world safer.

Unfortunately, the last one is very hard to measure. And even though many lawsuits have resulted in changes to procedures and laws intended to make the world safer, enforcement can be a huge issue.

Recently, in Portland, we saw a lawsuit intended to protect the safety of Portland public transportation riders and pedestrians fail when it came to real-world application. The lawsuit against TriMet and their bus manufacturer that was recently settled for $4 million should have made the world (or Portland at least) a little bit safer.

This lawsuit was brought against TriMet and the bus manufacturer after the deaths of two pedestrians back in 2010. TriMet was charged with negligence in their training of the driver who caused the crash, while the bus manufacturer was charged with negligence for the mirror that created a blind spot where the pedestrians entered the crosswalk.

I know the $4 million was meant to help compensate the families of the victims, but I also think the families would appreciate knowing they went through the hardships of litigation to achieve a higher goal – long-term changes to TriMet policies and the bus designs.

The lawsuit should have changed how TriMet trained its drivers and changed how its rear-view mirrors work. Instead, according to this article, TriMet seems to have paid its money and continued to operate as before. It’s a real shame. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing corporations do this, but when public agencies do it, we should all be saddened. TriMet has an opportunity to improve its training procedures right now. The agency should be grateful for the opportunity, not squander it.

Thankfully, other organizations have been successful in using personal injury lawsuits to understand the error of their ways. Here are some great examples of changes that only happened after a lawsuit was brought:

1)   Changes to tire manufacturing after Firestone was held liable in several wrongful death cases.

2)   Changes to regulations in toy and child garment manufacturing, including fire retardation and decrease of choking hazards.

3)   More recently in the news, lawsuits have changed the labeling of the birth control Mirena to ensure that women are warned of the dangers of the IUD.

Hopefully TriMet will learn a lesson here, and not just to prevent more lawsuits – but much more importantly, to ensure that no family ever has to endure a preventable death like this again.