John O'Connor
John O’Connor

Not all the news out of Congress these days is bad. Last week, the House passed long-overdue legislation that fines plaintiffs who file frivolous lawsuits.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) is the bill’s sponsor. He accurately noted that many people who file these bogus cases are never held accountable.

“In recent years, frivolous lawsuits have been filed against the Weather Channel for failing to accurately predict storms, against television shows [that] people claimed were too scary, and against fast-food companies because inactive children gained weight,” he said. He could have just as easily cited the litany of strange cases in the senior living sector.

The approved House legislation attempts to reduce wasteful litigation by making sanctions against frivolous claims mandatory rather than discretionary under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The measure also eliminates a 21-day “safe harbor” period for a plaintiff’s lawyer to withdraw a lawsuit without penalty.

“A generation ago, the rule meant to hold lawyers accountable for bringing frivolous lawsuits was watered down,” said Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. “What followed was litigation wave that left in its wake increased insurance costs, job losses, and a near total breakdown of attorney accountability.”

Amen. Knucklehead cases cost long-term care providers many dollars and many hours of wasted time each year. Relief here would be welcome indeed. And just so I’m clear, I have no problem with legitimate cases being filed. Operators who shirk their caregiving duties or abuse residents should be out of business, and probably in prison.

But all too often, people seem to feel that when bad things happen, someone else must pay. Lifelong smokers sue tobacco companies and obese people go after fast-food restaurants as if they had no say in the matter. Who gave us the notion that this is an acceptable position? Trial lawyers? Sympathetic juries? Politicians? It’s utterly bizarre, yet it happens all too often.

We live in a world where the luckiest among us get old and sick before we die. Fortunately, senior living options exist to make the endgame more comfortable and less painful than it otherwise would be. And while it’s one thing to hold operators responsible for bad care, it’s another to blame them for life’s inescapable realities. Yet all too often, that’s the driving factor behind many cases that never should have been filed.

Putting the brakes on shameless cases isn’t just good for the long-term care field. It’s good for America.