20+20: The Fallacy of Frivolous Lawsuits

2020BadgeWelcome to the first in a series of articles reflecting on Cooper & Elliott’s past 20 years in the legal profession, and offering our thoughts about the next 20 years.

We’ll highlight some of the major legal events we’ve experienced inside and outside of the courtroom. We’ll discuss changes we’ve seen in the legal arena, as well as public perception of our industry. It’s a chance for us to gain perspective of where we’ve been, and forecast where we’re headed.

We’re beginning with a subject that often makes headlines: frivolous lawsuits.

Media impact on public perception

Talk of frivolous lawsuits has been around a while. Occasionally, a lawsuit may get filed with little or no chance of success because it lacks any merit at all. These lawsuits waste time, money, and resources, and they’re often meant to harass the opposition or make a quick buck off of big business.

We’ve all heard stories of burglars suing homeowners and negligent consumers suing corporations. Most infamous is the case from the early 90s, when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s because of injuries she suffered from spilling scalding coffee in her lap. The media went into a frenzy over the story. Tales of consumer negligence and a three million dollar settlement made the case a symbol of the frivolous lawsuits supposedly overwhelming our justice system.

The problem is, the details and facts of the case were lost in media sensationalism and public outcry. (You can check out the details of the story in this report.) Since that case, many people today believe that wrongful injury and death cases are frivolous by nature and are clogging up the courts. False perception took over reality.

The reality

The fact is, only about fifteen percent of the cases in our courts today are personal injury or wrongful death cases. The rest are criminal, domestic relations, foreclosures, workers compensation, businesses suing other businesses, and so on. Fifteen percent is far from a “drain” on legal resources, and the majority of injury and wrongful death cases are far from frivolous.

In the McDonald’s coffee case, some in the media simply got the facts wrong. It was reported that:

  • Stella Liebeck was driving while taking the lid off of her coffee (she was actually a passenger in a parked vehicle)
  • She received millions of dollars after the verdict (she didn’t – the final settlement amount was for less than $600,000)
  • Her injuries were minor (she actually endured numerous skin grafts to repair the third degree burns).

In addition, media reports often failed to mention that McDonald’s kept its coffee hot enough to cause severe burns within seconds, that McDonald’s had received hundreds of reports of burns caused by its coffee, and that Stella had originally asked McDonald’s just to pay her medical bills and filed her lawsuit only after McDonald’s refused.

But the damage to Stella, to both her body and her reputation, was done. Today, many cite this case as an example of a “get rich quick” scheme, but that summation could not be farther from the truth.

Turning the tide on public perception

Over the last twenty years, we’ve dealt with numerous family members involved in personal injury and wrongful death situations who hesitate filing a lawsuit because of the stigma involved with many of these cases. Businesses and insurance companies looking to avoid accountability count on this stigma to discourage people who have been harmed from even filing a lawsuit to enforce their rights.

That’s a sad situation. There are many folks out there who need to get back to their lives. They need to have some measure of quality of life restored. They need compensation because the person who took care of them is no longer with them.

Often, the first step we take is to help these individuals understand that their story has merit. Their life is meaningful. Their case is important and needs to be heard in front of an impartial judge and jury. Helping them overcome the misperception perpetuated by irresponsible businesses, insurance companies, and many in the media is the first step on the road to recovery.

For two decades, we’ve made it our mission to help people recover from terribly tragic events. And we will continue to do so in the years to come. With each case, with each family member we help, the public perception about lawsuits will change.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.