Spreading lies about “greedy” claimants and how outrageous lawsuits have supposedly become was the best way for the insurance industry to shut up people who might otherwise stand up for their rights. The industry started by warping public perceptions of a high-profile case against McDonald’s, but from there, the public disdain for frivolous lawsuits took on a life of its own.
The Myth about Sue-Happy America
You’ve probably heard of the “Stella Awards,” named after Stella Liebeck and purporting to be a list of the most outrageous lawsuits ever filed. You may have even received the list in your own email inbox. Versions of the Stella Awards have circled around on the Internet since at least the early 2000s and sometimes been printed in newspapers as facts despite their fabricated nature. Lowlights from the list include:
- A mother who tripped over her own unruly child while shopping, fell, and sued the store’s owner.
- A would-be hubcap thief whose hand was run over by the car’s owner during the attempted heist.
- A robber who suffered “mental anguish” from getting stuck in a homeowner’s garage for longer than a week and being forced to survive on dog food.
- A man bitten by his neighbor’s dog after he snuck into the neighbor’s fenced-in yard and began shooting the chained dog with a pellet gun.
- A woman who injured herself trying to sneak through a bathroom window to get inside a nightclub without having to pay the cover charge.
- A woman who threw a drink at her boyfriend in a restaurant and then slipped and fell on the resulting puddle on the floor.
The Stella Awards would have you believe that the woman could get rich suing the restaurant after slipping on the mess she made when throwing the drink. In real life, she wouldn’t see a dime.
We could all use a good laugh, and certainly every case here is laughable, at least if the facts haven’t been warped like the story of the real Stella Liebeck. But the stories here are presented as facts, even though there’s nothing real about them. Fake stories like these are in large part how the insurance industry gained public and political support for tort reform laws.
The truth is, none of these imaginary cases has merit, and no lawyer who commands real respect in the courtroom would take a case like these. Because of this sue-happy myth spread by the insurance industry, most people believe that you really can sue for anything. Maybe in some disciplines of law, you can, but in personal injury law, there are a few qualifiers that, if you don’t have, you simply don’t have a claim.
What You Need for Personal Injury Claims
Contrary to popular belief, our nation’s courts aren’t clogged with frivolous personal injury lawsuits, and this is why:
- Injury: One requirement seems obvious, but apparently isn’t. The main qualifier for a personal injury claim is, well, an injury. A personal injury claim must involve an actual, physical injury, not just emotional offense. So the fictional robber turned dog food-eater couldn’t pursue a personal injury claim merely for his mental anguish, even if he wasn’t illegally trespassing. This is such a common misconception that my office has, in fact, received calls from prospective clients who thought they could sue because they were offended. Some of them have minor property damage or the like, but no actual injuries. They might be able to take a case to a small claims court to get compensation for a ripped jacket, smashed cell phone, or other type of property damage, but when it comes to personal injury law, if there’s no injury, there’s no claim.
- Legality: Like the robber, quite a few of these Stella Award stories involve “victims” who were trespassing at the time their accident occurred. In most cases, the injuries happened only because they were illegally on the property, doing things they obviously shouldn’t be doing. It just isn’t right that a person can engage in criminal activity, stupidly cause harm to himself or herself, and then sue a person or company that has done nothing wrong.
Of course tales of trespassers suing property owners for injuries suffered while committing crimes make us bristle, and they certainly bolster the case for tort reform – but they’re not real.
That’s exactly why claimants typically must have been legally on the property and engaging in normal use of a product or premises to have any shot at recovering compensation. Sure, what constitutes “normal use” can be debated in some instances, but in none of these trespassing stories is the legality of the person’s presence on the property open to debate. If you’re robbing someone’s house, of course you can’t sue them because you hurt yourself. If you trespass on a neighbor’s property and provoke a chained dog into biting you, no, you can’t sue for that. Likewise, the woman sneaking into the nightclub has no case. If she were a paying patron of the nightclub, legally on the property and forced to exit through the bathroom window due to a fire or explosion, then most people would agree that the story would be totally different and the club’s owners should pay for her injuries.
- Responsibility: What most people who buy into the sue-happy myth – which is to say, most people – don’t know is that one of the biggest factors in a personal injury claim is liability, or legal responsibility.
For example, say a motorist is hit from behind by another driver. Traffic laws state the drivers must always maintain a safe following distance while driving, with no exceptions. That’s why rear-end collisions are virtually always the fault of the driver who hits the person in front of them. But it’s common for the innocent motorist to hear that he or she shouldn’t have come to such a sudden stop, even though there’s no law against stopping suddenly when necessary. Liability is the factual argument backed by law. The second driver in the rear-end crash is at fault. Judgments with no basis in law have no place in the courtroom.
The Reality of Frivolous Lawsuits
Certainly a person who breaks laws or rules regarding accepted behavior is liable for the accident. In the story of the hubcap thief, if he is hiding beneath the car trying to steal parts of it, the driver couldn’t be expected to be aware of the thief’s presence and is obviously not liable. On the other hand, if there were children playing nearby the car and the driver hit them accidentally, he might be liable. The context of how and where the accident happens matters. The real-life legal system isn’t the sue-happy free-for-all the insurance industry wants you to think it is.
The dreaded slip-and-fall case is an especially important example. In both of the Stella Award falls, the victims caused their own injuries. Real slip-and-fall claims are much harder to litigate successfully. Often, businesses are only liable if they knew or should have known about a safety hazard but failed to correct it or warn customers of it. Leaving a spill on the floor unmarked for a long time or neglecting to put out signs warning customers that an area has been recently mopped are examples in which a business might be liable for an accident. The Stella Award stories are not. A restaurant guest who throws a drink can reasonably be expected to know that the floor will be slippery. A woman who brought an unruly child into the store should be watching the kid more carefully, but regardless, it’s certainly hard to prove that store staff should have been aware that the child would cause his or her own parent to trip.
Yes, there certainly are such things as frivolous lawsuits. There are bad lawyers just as there are bad professionals in every occupation, and sometimes their lack of ethical backbone allows ridiculous lawsuits to creep into the civil justice system. And guess what? Believe it or not, those of us who are serious about pursuing legitimate cases and helping real victims actually find these silly lawsuits even more distressing than the general population does. We know that these cases are the reason that juries are cynical and the reason that insurance companies have so much power.
Trivial lawsuits make our jobs harder every day, and that means they make our clients’ lives harder, too, while they wait for us to overcome the many time-consuming obstacles in the legal process. That’s no coincidence. The insurance industry’s assault on the public’s opinion of personal injury lawsuits had the desired effect of stopping many would-be claimants from pursuing the money they deserve. Between the industry’s invasion of the legal system and the stigma it created against those who file lawsuits, insurance corporations have successfully changed the rules in their favor.