Frivolous Lawsuits

The biggest tort reform myth is that frivolous lawsuits are clogging courts, but the fact is, American doesn’t have a lawsuit problem.

Despite popular opinion, statistics show that America doesn’t have a frivolous lawsuit problem. The Rand Institute for Civil Justice, one of the most respected think tanks in the nation, found that only 10 percent of injured people seek compensation and only 2 percent of them file lawsuits. The Rand Institute also found that since 1991, tort cases reflected only six percent of all cases filed. Other reports have shown that:

While populations have grown nationwide, personal injury lawsuits have decreased by 21 percent.

  • Personal injury lawsuits represent only 1.3 percent of all civil dispositions.
  • From 1992 to 2005, jury trials in personal injury cases have seen a 52 percent decrease.
  • A survey of judges in Texas, where tort reform support runs high, found that 86 percent of them felt there was no need for legislation to limit lawsuits.

The frivolous lawsuit myth is an invention of big business. Corporations and insurance companies, though selective and sometimes entirely false reports, have framed several legitimate lawsuits as frivolous and an abuse of our courts. Through a relentless and well-funded public relations campaign, big business has transformed civil cases into urban myths that propagate the frivolous lawsuit myth. Frivolous lawsuits are just another bogey man trotted out by corporate interests to scare us into giving up our rights. Below are some of their manufactured examples of frivolous lawsuits:

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

The most famous “frivolous lawsuit” of all time is the McDonald’s hot coffee case. The storyline spread by big businesses is that a woman spilled hot coffee on her lap while driving and had the nerve to sue McDonald’s for her own clumsiness. Of course coffee is hot, and it’s not McDonald’s fault if you spill it on yourself, argued tort reform advocates. The case also made news because of the size of her verdict, which was reported in the millions. What wasn’t reported, though, was that the entire story was false. First, the elderly woman suffered third-degree burns which required eight days of hospitalization and multiple skin grafts. Second, the coffee served to her was 50 degrees hotter than normal coffee – a complaint McDonald’s had received hundreds of times before and ignored. Finally, she only sued McDonald’s when her request for a $20,000 settlement to cover her out-of-pocket medical expenses was denied. She eventually recovered only $640,000 after the jury determined that she was 20 percent responsible for the injury.

The Drunk Driving Phone Booth Accident

Ronald Reagan borrowed big business propaganda when he spread the story of a man who sued the telephone company after he was hit by a drunk driver while using a phone booth. However, what you may not know is that the man, who earned less than $7,300 a year as a janitor, lost his leg in the accident, rendering him permanently unemployed. While he did sue the driver and the bar who served her, he also sued the phone company because the booth itself was defective and dangerous. He saw the driver careening towards him, but the booth’s door locked, preventing him from escaping. Witnesses saw him frantically trying to open the door, and the booth had also been hit by a car less than 20 months earlier.

The Ladder and the Manure

Many of us have heard of the man who set up a ladder with its base in frozen manure, which eventually caused the ladder to slip and the man to fall. Tort reform advocates claimed the man sued because the ladder didn’t come with a warning that it shouldn’t be set up in manure – but it was an outright lie. The ladder never slipped; instead, it broke – with less than 450 pounds of weight on it. The man sued because the ladder had been rated safe up to 1,000 pounds.

While corporations are quick to claim civil lawsuits are exploding, the real culprit is business litigation. Between 1985 and 1991, business disagreements made up nearly half of all federal litigation. While lawsuits between big businesses over contract disputes more than tripled between 1960 and 1988, lawsuits filed by individual citizens decreased by 21 percent.

Even if frivolous lawsuits were a concern, our civil justice system is well-equipped to dispense with them. Judges are permitted to dismiss inappropriate cases before trial and can even sanction lawyers for filing frivolous proceedings.

It’s up to a judge and jury to determine if a lawsuit is frivolous, not corporations acting in their own interest.

Click here to learn more about tort reform myths in our Fact vs. Fiction section.