Dispelling the Myth of the Frivolous Lawsuit

There is a pervasive – and dangerous – belief in America that our court system is clogged with unnecessary, “frivolous” lawsuits. This myth is the reason we so often see our civil justice system under attack by politicians, political action groups, and even some journalists.

The truth is, civil lawsuits are at an all-time low. Out of every 1,000 people, fewer than 2 will actually file a lawsuit seeking monetary damages for injuries they have sustained. So why do “87% of voters agree that there are ‘too many lawsuits filed in America’”?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Ford’s combustible Pinto

In the 1970’s, the Ford Pinto had a fuel system problem. The problem was that it was placed within the car. In crash tests, the cars tended to explode, engulfing the car in flames. Ford figured out that it was more cost effective to simply pay for the potential deaths than it would be to fix the defect in their cars. So they rolled them out in spite of the known danger.

Based on different reports, anywhere between 27 and 180 people died as a result of Ford’s defective cars.

This was one of those cases that captured the attention and the outrage of the American public. It’s the same type of outrage that people felt after the Takata airbag recall, or Jeep’s recall for defective gear shifters, which was the cause of the death of actor Anton Yelchin. The Pinto invariably led to countless other regulations and safety upgrades, and opened the path towards holding automakers responsible for their actions.

Then things changed.

Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s hot coffee

In 1992, a 79-year-old named Stella Liebeck ordered a coffee from McDonald’s. She was in a car, pulling the cap off of the coffee when it spilled into her lap. The coffee was so hot, it caused second- and third-degree burns to Ms. Liebeck’s groin and thighs. She had to undergo skin grafts. She was disabled for years.

She sued McDonald’s for $20,000 – the cost of her current and anticipated expenses. McDonald’s offered her $800. In 1994, they went to court, and the jury found for Ms. Liebeck. They also found McDonald’s – whose coffee was brewed at a temperature between 180–190 °F – liable for punitive damages, and awarded her $2.7 million.

And the American public went crazy.

What was so different between Ford and McDonald’s?

So why do people think Ford was guilty, but Ms. Liebeck filed a frivolous lawsuit? It could be any number of things. In the case of Ford, they knew they had a defective product but put it on the road anyway. People who died in crashes with Pintos may not have been responsible for those accidents in any way (Ms. Liebeck’s jury found her 20% responsible for her injuries), and may have lived had the cars not caught fire. Maybe more people drink hot coffee than drove Pintos, and since they never burned themselves, they figured she was exaggerating.

But realistically, the difference was the nationwide smear campaign launched against Ms. Liebeck: by McDonald’s, by the coffee industry, by news stations, and by legislators. The public was outraged because they believed Ms. Liebeck asked for millions of dollars in damages – and no one seemed too keen to correct them. Ultimately, she settled the case for a significantly reduced value, but agreed to a confidentiality clause that prevented her from correcting the record. She became, in a sense, the poster child for the frivolous lawsuit.

The ripple effects we feel today

Cases like Ms. Liebeck’s sparked a backlash with effects we are still feeling today. While Ford’s greed gave rise to consumer activism, the Liebeck case allowed for tort reform: the legislative practice of reducing payouts to civil justice plaintiffs through damage caps. The most common reasons cited for tort reform include:

  • Too many lawsuits causing a bottleneck in our court system
  • Too many “runaway juries” who simply want to punish corporations
  • Doctors and hospitals having to buy excessive amounts of malpractice insurance to ensure they can stay in business
  • Lawyers trying to get rich off of people’s misery

None of these things are actually true. Yes, a doctor who has been found liable of medical malpractice may have higher premiums to pay, just as a driver who caused a car crash might have higher insurance rates. But the cost of medical malpractice insurance is not skyrocketing. Doctors aren’t shutting down their businesses because they cannot pay for insurance.

Furthermore, personal injury and medical malpractice lawyers work on contingency. We don’t bill for any of our work unless our clients win. A medical malpractice case can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars; some injury cases can cost in the millions. Frankly, no lawyer worth his or her salt is going to put a million dollars of the firm’s money on the line to pursue a case that he or she believes to be frivolous, because it won’t help the clients and it certainly won’t help the firm. (In Washington, D.C., there are laws on the books that actually punish attorneys who bring frivolous lawsuits. These are anti-SLAPP laws. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” which is a lawsuit filed in the hopes of simply wearing down the defense with legal bills until the defense simply gives up.)

As the video above shows, we don’t have “too many” lawsuits strangling the court system, either. That is simply a myth, the same way “runaway juries” are a myth. Those giant lawsuit verdicts you hear about? More often than not, the bulk of the damages are related to economic losses: your medical bills, your prescription drugs, your therapy, your wheelchair, your lost wages, your inability to return to work.

Most forms of tort reform place a cap on the non-economic damages that you incur. In other words, the court system still allows for the recovery of your past and future medical bills and lost wages, but your state congressmen get to decide how much your pain and suffering is worth.

And if you believe that seems fair, as so many Americans do, we ask that you consider this: imagine you had to have your right leg amputated, but the doctor fails to read your chart. Instead, he amputates your left leg. Now, instead of having one leg, you will end up with no legs, because the left still needs to be amputated.

How much is your ability to walk worth to you?

Keeping the civil justice system alive benefits all of us

Thankfully, Washington, D.C. doesn’t have damage caps – but West Virginia does. In West Virginia, if you suffer a catastrophic injury, the most you can recover is about $640,000. If an act of malpractice does not lead to a catastrophic injury or death, West Virginia says you are only entitled to approximately $325,000.

Damage caps and tort reform don’t do anything to improve the justice system; all they do is cause further harm to people who have already suffered because of the negligence of another person or entity. This is why we need to dispel the dangerous myth of the frivolous lawsuit once and for all.

The civil justice system is what keeps lead paint out of toys, and forced Exxon and BP to take responsibility for oil spills. It is what forced the NFL to finally pay up after covering up evidence that playing football could lead to CTE. It is what keeps your food safe, and your children’s clothing from catching fire. It is what allows car crash victims to have the medical bills paid for when a drunk driver’s actions caused harm. It is what protects us from cobalt-poisoning in knee replacements, organ perforation caused by defective mesh products, and babies being born with defects because of thalidomide.

In sum, the civil justice system protects us from the negligence and greed of others. Now, it is our turn to help protect it, by fighting against unjust legislation and demanding accountability from those who knowingly do us harm.

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