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July 27, 2001

SMU LAW PROFESSOR LOOKS AT THE PSYCHOLOGICAL HARM OF PROLONGED LAWSUITS

DALLAS (SMU)-- While the U.S. Constitution requires a speedy trial for criminal defendants, no such relief is available for those caught in the sluggish maze of the civil justice system. Crowded court dockets, legal delays and warring parties can drag out lawsuits for years.

Several studies have shown that long delays can cause psychological harm to plaintiffs and defendants, says Daniel W. Shuman, professor of law at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law. For example, medical journals have noted a link between physician suicides and malpractice lawsuits. In a recent article in the American Psychological Association's journal, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Shuman reviewed data on the psychological harm to litigants. He says the debate over reforming tort law needs to shift from an emphasis on the financial and managerial inefficiencies in the system to the psychological toll that unresolved disputes exact on individuals.

"People have always understood that delay is not good in litigation, but the way that's been expressed is as a financial problem, a lack of resources and money," Shuman says. "We need to rethink the harm that delay causes and understand it in terms of the significant permanent physical and emotional harm to the litigants."

Shuman, who is an expert on psychology and the law, says that by focusing on resolving disputes faster, critics and supporters of the current tort system will find common ground. Both sides share a concern for the emotional and physical consequences of court delays on litigants.

Furthermore, although delays are seen as beneficial to defendants because they weaken a plaintiff's case -- by trial time, plaintiffs are more likely to settle, appear less injured and witnesses may forget or vanish-- Shuman says delays cause harm to defendants, too. One study of 51 physicians sued for malpractice revealed that all but two had developed symptoms in response to the litigation, including inner tension, frustration, anger, insomnia and difficulty concentrating. And even when defendants prevail in lawsuits, Shuman says many professionals see the allegations as assaults on their professional competence and morality.

"Unnecessary delay may not only exacerbate harm to plaintiffs, but also may exacerbate harm to defendants for whom allegations of fault become the dominant disturbing focus of their lives," Shuman says.

In his article, "When Time Does Not Heal: Understanding the Importance of Avoiding Unnecessary Delay in the Resolution of Tort Cases," Shuman reviewed more than two dozen studies. He discovered two widely different perspectives of the psychological impact of tort litigation on claimants. Several studies concluded that lawsuits are not therapeutic because they require plaintiffs to relive their traumas and postpone their psychological healing. Another set of studies found lawsuits beneficial, especially for victims of child or sexual abuse, because they allow plaintiffs a certain amount of power over their abusers, who must answer for their actions. Further emotional healing occurs when a third party, a judge or jury, validates the claims of abuse.

From either perspective, however, whether lawsuits are therapeutic or not, Shuman says a quick resolution of the dispute benefits all parties. Delays can only cause more psychological harm or they can act as an impediment to those seeking to regain control of their lives by redress through the courts.

The American Bar Association has made recommendations for speedy resolution of civil cases. An ABA committee found that 90 percent of all civil cases should be settled, tried or otherwise concluded within 12 months of the date of court filings. Shuman, however, says it is not as important to specify an appropriate amount of time as it is to avoid unnecessary delays. A careful examination of the issues is important, and legal procedures must be followed.

"A decision made by a coin flip may be fast, but unlikely to leave the parties satisfied with the decision," he says.

With his article, Shuman would like to redirect the focus of the debate over tort reform. Judges, scholars and legal reformers need to see the consequences of delay not as simply a failing of the court system, but as something that is central to the very nature of tort law: a system designed to redress harm, he says, should not be furthering it.

Note to Editor: Copies of Daniel W. Shuman's article are available by contacting the SMU Office of News and Information at 214-768-7650.


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