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Joint and several liability is a U.S. legal provision where all parties to a prosecution can be held individually liable for up to the full amount sought by a plaintiff, irrespective of the amount of responsibility the individual defendant may be for the overall cost. For example, a negligent ship’s maintenance crew could be held severally responsible for the full cost of an oil spill occurring when the ship suffers a mishap. The very high costs of many forms of environmental degradation greatly exceed the ability of most defendants to pay. Consequently, there has been a tendency for plaintiffs and their legal representation in such cases to “search for deep pockets”-that is, attempt to prosecute those individuals and organizations considered best able to pay for damage allegedly caused, no matter how tenuous their connection to the incidents. This has led to pressure upon individual states to amend their laws, largely because of the pressure that has been brought to bear on medical care providers as well as medical insurance systems.
This process of reform has led to legal changes in 37 U.S. states in the process known as tort reform. This was a central policy of the second Bush candidature in 2004 and received more prominence due to Democratic candidate John Kerry’s choice of running mate, John Edwards, since Edwards was a trial lawyer and was characterized, somewhat unfairly, as an “ambulance chaser.” The power of the corporate lobby under the Bush administration has led to a tide of tort reform legislation. Many people claim that joint and several liability-an important part of the checks and balances of an advanced democratic state-represents the only meaningful method of holding corporations to account for damages, and that abolishing or compromising it represents a serious impairment of the rights of individual people. Corporate malfeasance, environmental degradation, lack of appropriate health and safety conditions in workplaces, and other questionable practices represent a potent body of evidence to support this viewpoint. Joint and several liability is of particular importance in the area of maintaining effective protection of the environment because of the multifactorial nature of environmental degradation.
- Lewis A. Kornhauser and Richard L. Revesz, “Multidefendant Settlements: The Impact of Joint and Several Liability,” Journal of Legal Studies (v.23/1, 1994);
- Berkeley Rice, “If You’re the Deepest Pocket,” Medical Economics (v.82/17, 2005).