When you hear the phrase “frivolous lawsuit”, what do you think of? All personal injury lawsuits? All neck injuries? McDonald’s? Something else?
Now consider how much you know about this issue. If you thought of a specific case, how much do you know about that case? Have you ever looked into any specific facts related to that case?
If you thought of an entire class of cases, how much do you know about that type of injury? Is your belief based on a researched opinion regarding the likelihood or possibility of soft-tissue injury arising from a sudden impact, or is it simply a bias?
Is it possible you accepted propaganda as truth? Have you ever considered what is behind that propaganda, and what is behind that bias if there was one? Where did that come from?
I believe lawsuits are important as a means to get compensation for injuries. An important part of my job is helping people who have been injured get money to help them pay for medical treatment, costs for recovery and future care, etc. That alone is a great reason to be a trial lawyer and it is work I am proud of. But there is more.
I know that civil lawsuits make society better, and I believe that in the right circumstance they can even be a civic duty. A lawsuit can very easily be bigger and more important than the people on each side of the courtroom.
Lawsuits Make Society Better
Why do you think civil lawsuits take place in government courthouses? Why would our U.S. Constitution guarantee us a right to trial by jury?
These last two questions were recently put to me during a seminar I attended with visiting speaker Stuart Ratzan.
The questions seem simple enough but they encouraged me to continue pondering the implications. Why are we not left on our own to privately hash out our disputes when someone has wronged us? Why would it be a government function to help individuals do that, and why would a jury of regular people (non-politicians) matter so much that it was included in our nation’s Bill of Rights? Surely the founders could have just made a list of what various harms are worth, and saved everyone the trouble of a trial, right?
The reasons for jury trials, and for placing the authority of the government behind them, are many and good. Let’s start with the following proposition: Individuals need help holding huge companies and corporations accountable when they harm people, and all of society benefits when individuals are able to do that. These are not the only reasons, but they are a couple of the important ones that stand out to me.
Where Did We Get The Idea That Lawsuits and the People Who Bring Them Are Bad For America?
As you might imagine, big corporations are seeking every opportunity to deny individuals the right to haul them in front of a jury and hold them accountable. This has been going on for a long time. In the 1990s the famous tobacco company and lawsuit defendant Phillip Morris invested approximately 2 million dollars in just two years to tort-reform and anti-jury political organizations including the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA). ATRA is a political special interest group largely composed of and funded by corporations and medical organizations for the purpose of limiting civil lawsuits.
Corporations hate the idea of having their actions judged by a jury. Being called to account in front of regular people who are not politicians sometimes results in big corporations with lots of money actually being punished, in a way that matters to them, by someone outside of their control. Accordingly, one of the primary targets of the anti-jury movement has been punitive damages, which are meant to stop a wrongdoer from continuing their bad conduct. The anti-jury movement, which really started getting traction in the 1980s, has succeeded at electing politicians who limit jury verdicts to such low numbers that deterring large corporations has become impossible. They have also managed to empower judges, many of whom are elected and subject to the same fundraising pressures as other politicians, to reduce jury verdicts.
As a quick review, civil jury trials are meant to compensate for loss and to hold wrongdoers accountable. Big industries that have found themselves being held accountable in the past are working hard to undermine that purpose and stop lawsuits. These special interests often act through private member organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and so-called grassroots organizations created by or on behalf of self-interested corporations.
Some argue that corporations are just looking out for their own interests, so of course, they want to limit lawsuits. However, the self-protection must stop where it treads upon the fundamental rights of others.
In my view, the anti-jury movement known as “tort reform” appears to have the following goals:
- keep people like you out of courtrooms using arbitration clauses, caps on damages and by re-writing tort laws that were originally passed to make sure individuals could get justice when harmed;
- install friendly judges by influencing judge elections, or influencing the elections of those politicians who appoint the judges;
- influence public opinion through anti-jury propaganda including red-herring arguments and flat-out untruths regarding so-called “frivolous” cases and misinformation about why insurance companies charge too much; and
- limit the public’s ability to hold them accountable by having their politicians place caps on damages.
Over time, it is my goal to expose and critique each and every method the anti-jury special interests and big corporations use to deny you, the individual, the right to a trial by jury. The efforts described above go beyond self-serving. The lack of concern for the good of society as a whole, and the effort to rob individual citizens of the powers our constitution intended them to have is immoral, underhanded, and demonstrably contrary to the public interest.
The anti-jury movement is, in fact, an all-fronts attack on the independence and efficacy of our civil judicial system. It is a coordinated and effective deception of the public. All of this effort is intended to undermine the role lawsuits play in our society, and to thwart their purpose. To the extent the purpose of a lawsuit is to make our communities safer, who benefits? Now guess who is funding the largest and most coordinated efforts to smear lawsuits, the civil court system, and juries.
So what is the purpose of a lawsuit? Most of the people who are forced to pursue justice through a personal injury lawsuit tried to resolve their dispute prior to filing. In my experience, most of them will readily tell you they never wanted to have to sue. Some of them feel that way because even they believe the propaganda bought and paid for by industries like tobacco and insurance. This propaganda has told you that lawsuits are “the problem”, and they love to add the word frivolous in front of the word lawsuit. But jurors are people just like you who listen to the facts of a case and then decide on an appropriate outcome.
Smoke & Mirrors
The anti-jury movement wants you to see the hot coffee headline. They never show you the burns.
“Frivolous” lawsuits don’t cost corporations money because they don’t result in big jury awards. Courts dismiss frivolous lawsuits easily and early on, and often fine those who filed them. So what are all these big corporations really afraid of?
Big verdicts for terrible harms. When people like you serve on juries, they look at the facts. They decide whether something awful has happened to someone, whether the cause was unreasonable, and what it will take to hold the wrongdoer accountable. Usually, that means compensation for the harm done. But every once in a while a wrongdoer has been so callous and reckless that a jury feels punishment is needed. If a large and powerful company has been careless and reckless, a large punishing verdict is sometimes needed to get them to change their ways.
By contrast, when politicians lower jury awards by placing caps on damages, they are not considering facts of the case at all. They are not applying caps to frivolous cases. Politicians are passing laws that apply to all cases regardless of how bad the harm is, how careless a wrongdoer was, or what might actually deter future harm for a particular wrongdoer. They are simply placing their own judgment above the decisions made by the jury, in advance, without considering any case-related facts, and often because a large corporation asked them to. Political caps on damages are a free pass to powerful wrongdoers.
Lawsuits exist so that individual victims of wrongdoing can get justice, even where the wrongdoer is a huge and wealthy company. Lawsuits take place in government buildings and under government authority because the ability for individuals to get justice, including where appropriate a punishing form of justice, benefits all of us.
Take Action – Make a Difference
The next time you see or hear anti-jury propaganda, take a moment to look into the real source. Somewhere behind the benign name is likely to be a corporation with a huge self-interest in undermining our constitution for its own gain.
No wrongdoer should be allowed to tread on individual rights for the sake of greed and recklessness. Contact the politicians who represent you and tell them to support access to justice for everyone, and to remove caps on damages that politicians have placed on jury awards.
If you have been injured by the negligence of another, you may have an important role in making our communities safer and our society better. Call my office right away to talk with me about how I may be able to help you demand your right to a trial by jury.