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Our Litigious Society?

Lady JusticesIt seems to be a common perception that America right now is a litigious society. Just google the term, and the first two pages (I didn't go any further) bring up all types of pages confirming this view.

How true is it, really? I'm in aviation, so I know how much liability lawsuits have hurt general aviation. And my wife is in the medical field, so I know how much malpractice insurance costs doctors. (On the flip side, since she works on an Air Force base, where the military culture makes it very, very difficult for patients to sue, I've heard all types of stories of malpractice that go unpunished.)

It seems that what most people base their view on are anecdotes of the most frivolous cases that have gone to court, and even then, sometimes the anecdotes are oversimplifications of the real event. Consider the lady who spilled hot coffee in her lap and sued McDonald's. As usually told in urban legend form, the story says the lady spilled her coffee while driving. In reality, she was the passenger, and the car was stopped when she spilled it while trying to add cream and sugar. The coffee was hot enough that she received 3rd degree burns, and was hospitalized for over a week. Additionally, McDonald's had already received over 700 complaints from others who had received 3rd degree burns from the coffee, and had covered hospital expenses totaling over $500,000 for other burn victims. The lady only sued McDonald's after they refused to cover her $11,000 hospital bill. And, what looked to be the final punitive damages before she and McDonald's settled out of court was only $480,000, not $2.7 million as often cited. I'm not arguing for one side or the other here, just showing that there's more to the case than is usually told.

Additionally, because it's the frivolous cases that have the most emotional appeal, they're the stories that get repeated. You don't often here about the cases that show the system working like it should. I'll give an example. The girlfriend of a friend of mine was recently sued. The background is that she had a verbal agreement with a company to create some spreadsheets for them, which she did. Another guy was contracted by the company to network their computers, which he did. However, right after all this computer work, the employee for the company who had basically given them the jobs skipped out of town with money stolen from the company. Around the same time, the company's computers became infected with viruses. The company owner suspected my friend's girlfriend and the networking guy of being in cahoots with the crook, so they refused to pay them and got the police to investigate. The police did investigate, and found no evidence of any wrongdoing on their part. Additionally, they found that the company's computers didn't have antivirus software, so they were at huge risk of infection. Well, the company owner wasn't happy with the results of the police investigation, so she sued my friend's girlfriend and the networking guy. When all the facts came out and it was clear that neither defendant was at fault, the judge not only ruled in their favor, but forced the company owner to pay each of them the money she'd withheld before, along with gas money to get them to the courthouse (it was an hour away), and lost revenue for the day of work they were missing.

A Snopes article dealing with a list of supposed frivolous lawsuits gives examples of several real frivolous lawsuits. In all the real lawsuits that Snopes listed, the plaintiffs all lost, and in one case, was forced to pay 75% of the legal fees associated with that case.

So, as to whether we live in a litigious society, it all depends on how you want to look at it. It seems pretty easy to sue for whatever you want to sue for, and it seems easy to find a lawyer willing to take your case. But, it's not as easy to actually win lawsuits, and you may end up being the one who has to pay if your lawsuit is too frivolous.

Added 2010-07-22 Okay, after thinking about this a bit, I realize I haven't done enough research to say how many people are actually winning frivolous lawsuits. It may be a problem. However, I still feel pretty confident that most people are biased by hearing anecdotes of the worst cases, and particularly by urban legends of cases that never happened, or exaggerations or over simplifications of actual cases.

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