Is there an abundance of “frivolous” lawsuits and “runaway” juries making a mockery of the civil justice system? That’s what some proponents of tort “reform” would have you believe. But many of the examples of head-scratching lawsuits and verdicts that have been circulated are misleading at best, blatant lies at worst.
In some cases, lawsuits are made to look foolish by distorting the underlying facts. In some cases, the suits cited as “frivolous” have been made up. They are nothing short of urban myth. Many of the suits paraded as “frivolous” didn’t have a lawyer involved, were quickly dismissed and never came near a verdict or settlement. We also don’t hear about the “runaway” jury verdicts that were later reduced or struck down on appeal. And tort “reformers,” spreading propaganda in the form of deceptive sound bites and shades of reality, would have you make a decision on the merits of a case based on a few sentences rather than the days, weeks or months of testimony a jury heard before reaching a verdict.
One of those supposedly “frivolous” lawsuits is a case that was so badly, and loudly, distorted by tort “reformers” that it remains a topic of discussion today, more than two decades after it was filed. That is the case involving an elderly woman who was badly burned when she spilled coffee she purchased at a McDonald’s drive-thru. In an attempt to correct the many misperceptions that have been created by tort “reformers,” a documentary that aired on HBO in 2011, “Hot Coffee,” exposed not only the falsehoods that surround this case but other attacks on the civil justice system by the corporate lobby.
We’ve created a separate page to detail what happened to Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old New Mexico woman who sued McDonald's, and how the tort “reform” movement misrepresented it to America. For now, suffice it to say much of what most Americans think they know about “the McDonald’s case” is wrong.
Before Stella Liebeck, there was “the phone booth case (pdf)”, which rose to national attention after then-President Ronald Reagan referred to it in a 1986 speech in which he attacked tort law as “a pretext for outrageous legal outcomes.”
Because of the misperceptions of such cases, Liebeck and "the phone booth case" became national punch lines. But tort “reformers” were not content to merely distort those cases. Soon cases were fabricated from whole cloth (typically involving plaintiffs whose behavior was foolish, illegal or both) and spread as examples of a civil justice system supposedly turned upside-down.
One website began “honoring” cases it found to be “frivolous” by handing out the “Stella Awards,” named for Mrs. Liebeck. But that site had to distance itself from fictional cases that have been touted as “Stella Award winners.” You’ve probably had some of these forwarded to you in an e-mail. Just because you read it in an e-mail doesn’t make it true, but that hasn’t stopped many people from believing it anyway.
For instance, the woman who tried to sneak into a nightclub to avoid the cover charge by crawling into a bathroom window, only to fall and break two front teeth — and won an award for $12,000 and medical expenses. Not true.
Or the woman who won $780,000 from a department store where she broke an ankle after tripping —over her own toddler. The story is fabricated.
Or the man (or, in some tellings of the story, woman) who, while driving his new Winnebago, set the cruise control and went into the back to make coffee, only to be badly injured when the driverless vehicle left the highway and overturned — and won a verdict of nearly $2 million when he sued Winnebago because the vehicle manual didn’t say he couldn’t actually do what he did. Sorry, it never happened.
All of these cases were made up. And yet there’s a good chance you know someone who absolutely knows each of these cases is true — and is a shining example of why we need “tort reform.” After all, they read it in an e-mail forwarded by a trusted friend! Adding to the confusion, some of these cases have been printed as fact by news organizations that did not bother to check their veracity, including such high-profile outlets as the New York Daily News and U.S. News and World Report magazine.
“I am astonished how successful these urban legends have been in influencing policy,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill.”
In an October 2004 article in Washington Monthly magazine, Stephanie Mencimer traced one particularly pervasive myth:
In 1977, the venerable insurance company Crum & Forster sponsored one of the first print ads that included what would become a staple of anti-lawsuit rhetoric: the fictional lawsuit horror story. The ad told the story of a guy who collected a $500,000 jury verdict after he was injured using a lawnmower as a hedge clipper. The agency later conceded that it had no factual basis for the story, but that didn't keep it from circulating widely in the media and in conservative political speeches.
The industry knew what it was doing. In 1979, Elizabeth Loftus, the famous memory researcher and University of California psychologist, tested the effects of this kind of advertising on potential jurors and their decision making in the jury box. At the time, the industry was spending $10 million on a series of ads in a host of national magazines. In an article in The American Bar Association Journal, Loftus reported that potential jurors who were exposed to even one insurance ad awarded much less for pain and suffering than those who weren't.
And that is the reason tort “reform” advocates are willing to use distorted or fabricated accounts of lawsuits to make their case — because the goal of tort “reform” is limiting corporate liability and accountability.