You probably know the kind of guy (or maybe you are the kind of guy) who immediately starts ranting about frivolous lawsuits anytime someone mentions the word “McDonald’s.” We’re all familiar, of course, with the case of Stella Liebeck, who was burned by a cup of McDonald’s drive-through coffee and got awarded money in court.
After that case, the media (not to mention email inboxes, political speeches, and watercooler visitors) exploded with stories of how out of control the legal system is in America because of all these outrageous lawsuits people are winning—such as the burglar who got locked in his victim’s garage for 8 days and got $500,000 in damages. (Totally didn’t happen.)
Sure, frivolous lawsuits occur sometimes—people are greedy jerks and will take advantage of the system if they can—but in reality, they are few and far between. And most of the ones bandied about by tort reformers are actually completely untrue, or important information that makes them justifiable was left out. Here are a few you might not know about.
The case of the ladder in manure
Hard-hitting TV news show 60 Minutes once featured a story about a roofer who used a ladder to access the roof of a barn. The ladder fell from under him, he was badly injured, and was subsequently awarded $300,000 by a jury. This story enrages people because the roofer allegedly set up the ladder in a pile of manure and, so the story goes, the ladder fell because manure is slippery. Duh!
Except the award actually had nothing to do with the manure—nor did the roofer’s injuries. The ladder was safety rated for up to 1,000 lbs. and it broke (rather than slipped) under a load of less than 450 lbs. That’s a pretty major discrepancy.
The case of a butt-biting neighbor dog
An Arkansas man named Jerry Williams was reportedly awarded $14,500 plus medical expenses when his neighbor’s dog bit him in the ass. Okay, you’re thinking, anyone would sue for a dog bite. That’s just common sense. However, the story goes on to say that the dog was actually tied up in the neighbor’s yard where he belongs, and Williams had not only climbed over the fence, but shot the dog repeatedly with a pellet gun. Outrageous, right? It would be, if it were true. The whole thing was made up.
The case of the stuck phone booth door
Ronald Reagan himself used this one in a speech undoubtedly calling for tort reform: a California man was in a phone booth (remember those?) when a drunk driver crashed into it, causing the man to eventually lose one leg, along his livelihood as a janitor because his remaining leg was smashed. So, he sued the phone company who owned the booth. Yes, the phone company.
The reason he sued the phone company was not only because the door was stuck and he was unable to escape even though he tried, but also because the same phone booth had also been hit by a car 20 months previously. You’d think that, given the fact that they were aware it was a dangerous intersection, the phone company might have considered moving the booth—or at least oiling the door.
The case of the Hollywood blockbuster writer
Have you heard about the case of Salt Lake City paralegal, Sophia Stewart, who sued Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, and producer Joel Silver over copyright infringement? She claimed that blockbuster films The Matrix and Terminator were based on ideas she submitted to the Wachowski brothers for a comic book contest. Despite never submitting evidence that adequately proved her case, numerous articles claimed she won a multi-billion dollar settlement, much to the outrage of everyone who hears about it.
The real story is that her case was dismissed when she skipped the preliminary hearing. Later, she was given the option of reopening her case, but hasn’t. Meanwhile, inaccurate articles about the supposed award continue to be published, and the outrage continues.
The case of the ACLU banning prayer in the military
A classic email chain, designed to push the emotional buttons of patriotic, Christian Americans everywhere, claimed that the ACLU (bizarrely urged on by President Obama) filed suit to prevent the military from using crosses on the graves of fallen service members, disallow use of the word “Jesus” by military Chaplains, and/or ban prayer in the military altogether.
Although the claim is so ridiculous, it’s hard to believe anyone would take it seriously, people did. The outrage was epic. And, in the end, it was proven completely false. The ACLU, undoubtedly utterly confused by the accusations, responded that their official position is exactly the opposite of what the rumors claimed they were trying to do, going on to say, “Members of the military have a right to pray or not pray as they personally see fit, and that right is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.” Because the ACLU’s whole purpose is to protect people’s rights.
So next time your father-in-law starts holding forth about frivolous lawsuits and throws one of these doozies into the mix, let him in on the truth. It’s really not as bad as they say.