In the United States, if someone feels they've been injured by someone else's negligence, they can sue in court for monetary damages. People hurt in accidents caused by faulty auto parts, for example, or sickened by improperly-prepared food have been awarded thousands, sometimes millions of dollars in compensation for their suffering. While most lawsuits involve legitimate injury, there are a growing number of meritless lawsuits. Some legal experts say these frivolous cases — which appear to be motivated by greed rather than just cause — are clogging U.S. courts and undermining confidence in the U.S. justice system.
Legal reform expert Steve Hantler points to one recent frivolous lawsuit that made headlines around the world. A Washington, D.C. man sued his neighborhood dry cleaners for $54 million. He said they lost his pants, causing him mental anguish. After two years of legal battles, the judge rejected the man's claim that he was defrauded by the dry cleaners' "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign.
"The dry cleaners were two Korean immigrants who came to this country to live the American dream, to start their own business and watch it grow and be a part of America," he says. "Yet, this lawsuit nearly bankrupted them. They had to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves. That's a sad story about these two Korean immigrants, who at one point said they want to go back to Korea."
According to Hantler, fear of such frivolous but increasingly common lawsuits has, over the years, changed many Americans' way of life.
"In Omaha, Nebraska, for example, children used to snow-slide down city-owned hills," he says. "They can't do that anymore. The city is afraid of lawsuits. In Attleboro, Massachusetts, elementary school children can't play a game I used to play as a child at recess. They can't play tag at recess. Why? The principal is afraid of lawsuits. (At) swimming pools, in cities across the country, they have taken the diving boards out because the cities are afraid of being sued."
Meritless cases, Hantler says, also have a negative effect on small businesses and job opportunities across America.
"I think the lawsuit epidemic is a silent killer of jobs in this country," he says. "If you are an employer thinking to put a customer call center or a computer data center in this country, would you want to put one in Michigan where you can be subject to a $10 million lawsuit because of bad perfume? Or would you rather put your customer call center in another country where they don't have a legal system that's out of control?"
But other legal experts believe the problem of meritless lawsuits has been greatly exaggerated.
"There is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that lawsuits have an effect on the American economy," says Bill Schulz of the American Association for Justice, an organization of trial lawyers.
"The fact is that lawsuits with merit can benefit the economy," he explains. "In addition to the compensation injured persons receive that are not paid for by public funds, there is also the deterrence of wrongdoing. It's the prevention of further wrongdoing that's a benefit to the economy, and greater investments in product innovation and safety that also occur because of lawsuits that have merit. Cases that make a difference frequently change the way products are made, the companies behave and in the end, all of that is a benefit to the economy."
According to Schulz, most lawsuits in this country are legitimate business disputes, not frivolous cases.
"Our concern is obviously that one might get the wrong impression, that there is some sort of wave of meritless lawsuits in this country," he adds. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."
Still, many in the legal field, including Steve Hantler, support reforms — such as placing a limit on punitive damage awards — to stop frivolous lawsuits. They say people will be less likely to sue for exorbitant amounts if they know they'll never see that much money.
But trial-lawyer advocate Bill Schulz says the civil justice system has mechanisms in place to recognize unreasonable demands. Though he says he is personally opposed to frivolous lawsuits, Schulz is also against using such cases as a reason to change the system.
"The fact is the civil justice system is there to ensure that individuals have a fair chance to receive justice through our legal system when they are truly injured by the negligence or misconduct of others," he says. "Juries are absolutely capable of determining whether a case has merit or whether it does not have merit."
Schulz contends that while legal reforms might stop frivolous lawsuits, they might also deny Americans their legitimate day in court. That's a constitutional right, he says, that should always be protected.