Frivolous lawsuits in the American legal system make rousing news stories and attention-grabbing headlines. They are usually health-related cases in which the plaintiff accuses the defendants of significant mental and physical damages. However, many are not aware that these provocative news pieces are at the heart of one of the most heated debates of the modern American legal system—the issue of tort reform. Supporters of tort reform aim to delay tort claims and to cap damage compensation.
The 1994 product liability lawsuit Liebeck v. McDonald’s is frequently cited as the first major frivolous lawsuit in America. The incident involved 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, who had purchased a McDonald’s cup of coffee, spilled it in her lap, and experienced third-degree burns over six percent of her skin. During the trial, Liebeck claimed that McDonald’s coffee was served too hot – between 180-189 degrees Fahrenheit – and therefore her burns were a result of McDonald’s negligence. The twelve person jury decided that Liebeck should receive $200,000 in compensatory damages (later reduced to $160,000 since Liebeck was partially at fault for her burns) and $2.7 million in punitive damages (the equivalent of two days worth of McDonald’s coffee sales). A judge subsequently reduced the latter award to $480,000.
In another example, Judith Haimes filed a medical malpractice suit against Temple University Hospital following an allergic reaction to a dye used in a CAT scan. In Haimes v. Temple University Hospital and Hart, Haimes claimed that she warned the doctor of her allergy but that the doctor proceeded with the injections, which allegedly triggered an extreme allergic reaction that left her with migraines for several days. Haimes, a professional psychic prior to the incident, claimed that the hospital’s carelessness ended her career as a psychic because she experienced severe headaches when attempting deep mental concentration. Haimes was originally awarded $986,000 in damages, but the judge ordered a retrial. The second suit was dismissed due to the lack of credibility of Haimes’ medical expert. The second decision, affirmed in 1991 by a Pennsylvania Superior Court, resulted in no compensatory damages whatsoever for Haimes.
Such cases share a defining feature: the media commonly portrays the lawsuit as a perversion of the justice system resulting from juries that run amok and award exorbitant damages to opportunistic plaintiffs who lack a legitimate case. In 2011, HBO presented a documentary called Hot Coffee, which detailed the Liebeck case and three other tort lawsuits, focusing on the fact that corporations have spent millions distorting these cases to promote tort reform. The documentary suggests that this money is apparently well spent, as the American public has proven time and again its inherent susceptibility to media influence in the face of significant countervailing facts. The natural tendency of readers to scan headlines before actually reading the articles lends itself to bold-faced titles decrying the millions awarded for a spilled cup of coffee or a charlatan’s migraines. As an article published in Forbes this past June concluded, “Publicity about the McDonald’s ‘hot coffee case’ convinced many Americans that our legal system was broken.” If media headlines present the idea that frivolous lawsuits are a debilitating problem, the public may support reform of the justice system in order to fix what they believe to be the problem. This effect is clearly visible in bills such as the Common Sense Legal Reforms Act of 1995 and the Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act of 1996, both of which were passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The dates of these proposed reforms are key, as they were introduced just following Liebeck vs. McDonalds.
The media’s messages to the public about frivolous lawsuits are commonplace but such representations on seemingly frivolous lawsuits are often not factually accurate. First, the notion that frivolous lawsuits threaten our justice system is derived mostly from the fact that much of the public does not actually understand the details surrounding the trials. For example, numerous headlines trumpeted the fact that Stella Liebeck received $3 million from her suit and Judith Haimes received $1 million from her suit, when in fact Liebeck received $640,000 and Haimes received nothing. Second, many could assume that the magnitude and intensity of media coverage of frivolous lawsuits is directly proportional to the quantity of lawsuits, and therefore that the extensive media coverage would indicate a large quantity of frivolous lawsuits. The fact that these articles and headlines often reference the growing number of frivolous lawsuits also contributes to this perception. To the contrary, however, the number of new tort cases filed in 2006 was 433,000, down from 547,000 in 1997, suggesting that the number of frivolous lawsuits per annum is actually decreasing. One key problem of media coverage of tort litigation is the fact that news outlets frequently publish these articles not necessarily to support the tort reform movement but rather because their “shock factor” generates interest and increases sales.
There can be little argument over the claim that frivolous lawsuits are a problem that drains the resources of courts, businesses and the American public. There is similarly little room for argument over the claim that unscrupulous lawyers and opportunistic plaintiffs have taken advantage of a legal system that affords plaintiffs great latitude in pressing their claims. What is less clear is whether or not the basic right to a remedy for a perceived legal wrong is being reshaped and abridged by the public’s lack of knowledge about the true scope and nature of supposedly frivolous lawsuits and the actual monetary damages awarded. Equally unclear is whether or not those perceptions are effectively swayed by media reporting urged by the tort reform movement. While frivolous lawsuits may raise costs and waste time and resources, the greater danger in fact may rest in the use of the media to create a perception of a problem that ultimately may be exaggerated.