One of the most often-heard talking points that we hear from the tort-reform organizations is that lawsuits are “clogging up the system.” What this is supposed to mean is that, due to “frivolous lawsuits” about missing pants and spilled coffee, people that are REALLY suffering and crying out for justice have to wait for an unreasonable length of time for their trials to be heard.
We rarely hear about how the vast majority of individual lawsuits are from real people who have been genuinely injured. Instead, we hear only about the fringe lawsuits from people that no self-respecting attorney would represent. The American Tort Reform Association has a “Looney Lawsuits” section, which details various suits that occurred under circumstances that appear ridiculous.
A group called Sick of Lawsuits also dedicated a good portion of its website to describing lawsuits that seem pointless and overblown.
Even the President of the United States made reference to “Junk Lawsuits” in his 2005 State of the Union Address.
We find it odd that so many of these tort reform organizations believe that there is so much wrong with the legal system, especially considering that the corporations responsible for their funding make more use of our judicial system than any single private citizen ever possibly could.
Who Exactly is “Clogging Up The System?”
There ARE a lot of lawsuits being filed in this country. And they very well might be causing delays in our legal system. And a great many of them ARE in fact “Frivolous.”
Here are just a few examples:
Allstate v. Kraft: Insurance giant Allstate has filed lawsuits against two separate manufacturers of toaster pastries. In both cases, Allstate claimed that the improperly designed manufacture of these food products caused the two separate house fires that the insurance company was forced to pay for.
Caterpillar v. Disney: The heavy machinery manufacturer brought a lawsuit against the children’s entertainment giant over the portrayal of Disney’s portrayal of Caterpillar’s products. The suit, which asked a judge to block the American DVD release of George of the Jungle 2, claimed that the movie portrayed Caterpillar bulldozers in an extremely negative light. Despite the fact that the movie had already been released in several other countries and neither Disney nor Caterpillar had received any complaints from anyone, the lawsuit was filed in October of 2003. Since there are very few six year olds working in construction, it is doubtful that their reputation would have suffered all that much, but nevertheless, Caterpillar pressed forward with the suit, which was inevitably dropped by a judge.
Kellogg’s v. Toucan Golf: Kellogg’s, apparently unable to believe that people would be unable to tell the difference between golf clubs and breakfast cereal, filed suit against a golf equipment manufacturer. Kellogg’s believed that the logo that Toucan uses for its products came dangerously close to the logo that they use for Froot Loops. Kellogg’s lost, then appealed, then lost again.
Mattel v MCA: This five year waste of time pitted the makers of the Barbie Doll against MCA, a recording industry giant and the company responsible for marketing a 1997 novelty song called “Barbie Girl” by a Danish band called Aqua. In the lyrics of the song, the singer recites such poetic notions as “…life is plastic, it’s fantastic,” and “…you’re my doll, rock ‘n’ roll, feel the glamour in pink.” Mattel’s argument was that people would think that the somewhat raunchy song would be mistaken for a commercial or endorsement from the toymaker. The judge ruled in favor of MCA, citing the same sort of free speech and parody laws that have protected Larry Flynt and Andy Warhol. In response to the verdict, representatives from Mattel claimed that the disclaimer that MCA used when releasing the song was “… akin to a bank robber handing a note of apology to a teller during a heist.” MCA showed that there were no hard feelings by filing a defamation of character suit against Mattel, and the idiocy continued.
Proctor & Gamble v. Amway: If your neighbor started to spread the notion that you were in league with the Antichrist, what would you do? Would you shrug your shoulders? Would you count on people to be reasonable and rational and simply disregard the rumors? Would you consider the whole thing a sick joke and go about your business? The majority of us would simply disregard this news of our union with Satan and move on with our lives. But the folks at Proctor and Gamble took extreme offense to just such a rumor, and filed a lawsuit. A man named Randy Haugen left a post on an internet message board which stated that a high-ranking executive at P and G claimed membership in The Church of Satan during an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. Since Haugen was a major distributor for Amway products, and since he had thousands of individual salesmen working underneath him, Proctor and Gamble believed that each of these salesmen would spread not only cleaning products, but also the gospel that Proctor and Gamble were part of Beelzebub’s plan for world domination. The suit actually stayed in the court system for years, as Proctor and Gamble filed appeal after appeal.
These are only a few of the hundreds of thousands of lawsuits filed by major corporations on a yearly basis. If you follow the same definition of “Frivolous” that is used by the tort reform organizations (pointless, suits where there are no physical or monetary damages involved,) these seem to fall pretty neatly into that category.
A Quick Look at Our “Jammed” Court Dockets
It’s important to realize that there are two different types of civil cases. There are torts, which mean damage to property, reputation, physical damages, or monetary loss.
The other type is of civil case is a contract case. This is when two or more parties have a dispute over the wording or meaning of a legal contract. Generally speaking, the disputes involve businesses, corporations or manufacturers. (After all, when was the last time you sat down with your kids and hammered out a legally binding contract regarding homework, chores and allowance?) The tort reform organizations never mention contract cases (just as they never mention lawsuits involving Toucan Sam, Barbie Dolls and demonically possessed cleaning supplies,) but considering that contract cases take up a much bigger chunk of your average court docket, maybe they should.
The National Center for State Courts is a non-profit, non partisan group that, according to their website, “collects and interprets the latest data on court operations nationwide; and provides information on proven “best practices” for improving court operations.” Part of their work is collecting data on the types of cases that are moving through our legal system.
The NCSC did a survey of the types of cases that were on the docket in various states in 2004. They survey found that in most states, the majority of these cases involved disputes over contracts. In other words, you had various businesses going to court over the placement of a decimal point or semicolon. It is hardly the tort-happy lawsuit bonanza that is being described.
This public relations push by tort reform organizations (and, by extension, the insurance companies and large corporations that fund them) is inaccurate and insulting. It is an attempt to portray real people who have suffered real damages as shameless opportunists, and it is also an attempt to manufacture outrage among well-meaning voters and their elected officials. When they tell you ad nauseous all about the $54 million dollar pants lawsuit, their sole intention is to get you angry. When reasonable people get angry, they do unreasonable things, like allowing business minded tort reform organizations to spearhead legislation that would keep the average citizen from accessing the courts.
These groups make a living decrying a made-up lawsuit epidemic, even as those that sign their checks file civil case after civil case. If you get past the slogans and public relations, the message is clear: “Our lawsuits are just fine. It’s the lawsuits of the little people that are destroying America.”