Monday, June 23, 2008

Frivolous Lawsuits: The System Is Working To Weed Them Out

We attorneys who use our due diligence to weed out and turn down potential complaints or lawsuits not worthy of pursuing are often appalled when we hear of a goofball lawsuit that rears its ugly head in the media. Why? Because it simply fuels the fire for insurance companies and business groups who try to paint our civil justice system as bombarded with scads of "frivolous cases" while pushing for "reforms" that limit legitimate cases under the camouflage of cracking down on frivolous lawsuits (see previous post "Are You A True Tort Refomer?"). Using the occasional frivolous lawsuit as a poster child for "what's wrong with our justice system," the insurance industry has been highly successful in actually limiting what people can recover for legitimate and serious injuries.

A recent Ohio case, however, shows what we have known for years, and what the public is unaware of: that Ohio, like all states, has had laws on the books for over 20 years that fine attorneys and/or litigants who pursue frivolous cases. In this case, a motel patron was levied a late charge of $46 for a late checkout. Not happy with the charge, he sued PRO SE (meaning on his own without an attorney) and asked for $750,000 and free lodging for life.

This crazy lawsuit was quickly tossed out of court as meritless. But when the patron appealled to the Court of Appeals, the Court correctly took the case one step further: it made the patron pay $2,500 in legal fees the motel owners had to expend in defending the lawsuit. As Judge Painter correctly noted: "Fortunately, this Court has few frivolous cases. But we know one when we see one."

Lessons learned:

1. Ohio has strong laws in place to deal with stupid lawsuits like these. And nobody cringes more than us when we read about garbage like this, because it feeds into the misperception the public has about our justice system. And when we're all painted with the same "frivolous lawsuit" brush, it makes it harder for us to pursue legitimate cases for our clients.

2. These crazy lawsuits are rare, and are usually filed by individuals themselves pro se, without an attorney being involved.

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