Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Our "Sue Happy" Society--Myth Vs. Fact

I hear it all the time: We as Americans sue "at the drop of a hat," are "sue happy," or are trying to hit the "litigation lottery." There are a number of reasons for this. The first is goofball lawsuits which make their way into the media, like the guy who sued the dry cleaners for $54 million for losing his pants (by the way, he sued on his own without a lawyer). Like a dirty bomb, they are poorly constructed but are still capable of doing tremendous damage to how the public views our civil justice system.

Running a close second is the 40 plus years of a sustained propaganda campaign orchestrated by the insurance industry, big business, and The Chamber of Commerce. They have spent billions and billions convincing the public that we are awash in bogus lawsuits that are wreaking havoc on businesses and the economy, in order to lobby for legislation restricting access to our court system. And, lastly, we as attorneys have shot ourselves in both feet with tasteless and moronic TV ads, and offensive "solicitation" letters that land in injured motorists' mailbox even before the hospital bill arrives. Is it any wonder that the public has such a bad perception of lawsuits and attorneys who bring injury lawsuits?

Yet, the perception that we as Americans are suing everyone in sight doesn't square with the reality of what I've seen on a daily basis in over 20 years. Probably 95% of my clients have never made any claim against anybody before they see me. Many of my initial interviews go something like this: Were you ever in any collision before this one? "Yes, my car was totalled and I was banged up and went to the ER and had a doctor visit or 2 but I was fine and all I wanted was my bills paid and that was it." In fact, I see more people who had some sort of legal claim and didn't pursue it (like a consumer ripoff scheme or a potential malpractice claim) than those who did.

Truth is, the number of lawsuits and median jury verdicts in this country is steadily declining every year. A recent study by the U.S. Justice Department revealed that in the country's 75 most populous counties, the number of civil trials decreased by 52% from 1992-2005. Injury or "tort" cases declined by 40%. And the median jury trial verdict was $43,000, a 40% decrease from 1992's median average of $72,000.

If these are the facts, why does the public still believe that we're drowning in lawsuits and juries have gone wild, handing out gazillions at every turn? The answer is simple. The issue of lawsuits and their value in society for redressing wrongs has become an emotional issue, built on perception and "feelings" and not on facts. And in the battle of emotion and perception versus facts, emotion wins.

I think it was Mark Twain who once said: "A lie can travel twice around the world before the truth can put its pants on in the morning." That axiom will trump the old adage "Just the facts, ma'am," every time. And the sad byproduct of it all is that the toxic mix of all the propaganda and our profession's own self-inflicted wounds has only served to cast a wide net of suspicion over legitimately injured people who bring lawsuits.

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