In his 11 years as a defense trial attorney, R. Scott Williams has observed changes in law that have caused the pendulum of justice to swing from heavily favoring the plaintiff (the so-called "good guy") to more equitable treatment of those he defends - doctors accused of malpractice, insurance companies and municipalities being sued.
Williams, with the Salt Lake law firm of Strong and Hanni, has received the Exceptional Performance Award from the national Defense Research Institute in recognition of his contribution to influencing changes in the civil justice system that make the battle between "good guys" and "bad guys" more fair.A popular public perception is that injured persons suing are always the "good guys," while the rascals who defend big insurance companies, cities and physicians are "bad guys," Williams said.
Leaders in the civil law arena praised him for his leadership while serving as the president of the Utah chapter of the Defense Research Institute. His term expires May 31.
Citing an example of the unfairness of civil law before recent reforms, Williams offers the following scenario:
A man is a passenger in a car traveling on a city road. A 16-year-old driver, heavily intoxicated, collides with the car, injuring the passenger's neck. The teenager does not have insurance. So the passenger sues the "deep pocket" - the city, alleging that there was a defect in the road that contributed to the accident.
The jury finds the drunken driver was 98 percent responsible and the city only 2 percent responsible, but the city's insurance company pays 100 percent of the injuries.
While awards are not strictly based on percentage, they are now more proportionate to actual accountability.
"Now we have a system based more on actual fault. If you are 60 percent responsible, you're not going to get strapped with all the damages."
Tort, or civil law, involves injury of some kind either to property or to a person, Williams said. Changes in tort law strive to make the justice system more predictable.
Predictability in civil awards reduces the amount of insurance that Utahns pay, he said.
When Williams began his civil defense practice in 1977, there were 11 insurance companies in Utah that insured physicians. Now, because of the unpredictability of civil law, there are only two companies willing to insure doctors.
A new law places a ceiling of $250,000 on pain and suffering claims in a malpractice suit. This helps predictability. However, the cost of future medical expenses of an injured party does not have a ceiling, which is appropriate, Williams said.
Part of Williams' job as president of the Defense Research Institute's Utah chapter is to provide the state's civil defense attorneys with lists of national and local experts to help establish actual injury in civil cases.
For instance, a specialist in obstetrical malpractice could best determine if a child was born with brain damage because of the negligence in delivery - or because of genetic factors.
There are many cases where plaintiffs deserve compensation for injury, he said. Where injury is obvious in a medical malpractice case, then Williams' strategy is to admit fault and try to negotiate a settlement.
"The jury system is the best way to get a fair result for an injured plaintiff - as long as the laws are fair," he said.