In the United States, there’s a common conception that we live in a “litigious society.”
We hear frequent reports in the news of people who sue company owners or friends and family members for seemingly inconsequential slights, or pure accidents that shouldn’t be punished. We believe there are many people, and many lawyers, who would take legal action for a quick profit, or even for the sport of it.
But is this truly the case? Is frivolous litigation really as common as we think it is?
The Truth Behind Frivolous Cases
Let’s take a look at a few of the cases that could be considered frivolous. One of the most infamous examples is the case of the woman who sued McDonald’s because its coffee was too hot; on the surface, this sounds absolutely ridiculous. Coffee is supposed to be served hot. To sue McDonald’s for this seems like a cash-grab based on a thin premise, at best.
However, the details of the case are fairly disturbing. The coffee was served not just hot, but at a temperature so high that it caused serious burns in seconds. The woman who spilled the coffee was wearing sweatpants, and suffered third-degree burns as the coffee soaked through them. She required skin grafts to repair the damage, and found out there were hundreds of people who had sustained similar injuries. The woman was willing to settle the case for $20,000, to account for medical expenses and lost income, but McDonald’s offered only $800, so the case went to trial. Ultimately, the jury decided that the woman was partially responsible for her injuries, but imposed punitive damages on the corporate giant, which made headlines.
The same can be said of many types of cases that seem frivolous on the surface.
For example, slip and fall cases often get a bad reputation because they seem easy to fake with a carefully timed pratfall. However, most people who fall in a public place never consider legal action, and simply move on with their lives. Only when they suffer severe injuries, like broken bones, and can clearly see that someone was responsible for their fall, do they consider contacting a lawyer.
The Role of Corporations and the Media
Part of the reason we believe frivolous lawsuits are so common is the coordinated effort of corporations and news media to make it seem like they’re common.
Big corporations have the cash and power to hire talented and resourceful legal teams, who do whatever they can to reduce the impact of cases that could jeopardize the reputation of those corporations. In the McDonald’s case, lawyers had a vested interest in ensuring that people didn’t take the “hot coffee” case seriously, so they invested heavily in a PR campaign to make the case seem more ridiculous than it truly was.
News reporters tend to focus on details most likely to elicit a reaction from the public, and oftentimes those lean toward frivolity. For example, a headline suggesting that a woman was awarded millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on herself is much more rewarding than a headline suggesting a woman with third-degree burns sued the company that caused them.
It’s also worth noting that the general public pays a disproportionate amount of attention to cases that seem frivolous. We don’t pay especially close attention to the inner workings of our court systems; instead, we only learn about the most extreme cases.
The Decline of Tort Cases
Tort cases, the usual suspects in “frivolous lawsuits,” are actually on the decline.
According to recent data, only 4.4 percent of all civil cases are torts, and that number is steadily declining, rather than increasing.
There are many reasons for this. Part of this is due to the unearned, yet lingering reputation that we live in a litigious society; people don’t want to seem like they’re making a big deal out of nothing, so they never pursue legal action in matters where they truly should. Similarly, court cases are a lot of work; they cost lots of money and require you to spend countless hours of time, even if you have a strong case. Most people don’t want to go through this hassle, even if they stand to win a decent payout. They’d much rather accept a settlement, or not take any action at all, to keep things simple.
So is frivolous litigation truly common? The short answer is no.
There are people out there who intentionally try to create situations that allow them to sue, and those who sue others every chance they get, but these people are exceptionally rare — and tend to be unsuccessful in their attempts. Our perception of frivolous litigation is merely a byproduct of corporate PR, biased media coverage, and other unfair factors.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant.Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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