Tuesday, October 20, 2009

$105 Million Dollar Verdict In New York City--The Big Apple Likes This One

Yesterday a New York jury returned a $105 million verdict against Exxon for its poisoning of New York City's water supply. The recipients of this whopper verdict were not "personal injury" plaintiffs. Rather, the plaintiff was New York City--the Big Apple itself!

I found it ironic that this verdict came on the heels of a recent report that indicated that New York City spent hundreds of millions in 2009 settling personal injury type lawsuits. City officials were complaining about the extreme costs of tort litigation and ways to curb it, such as putting a legislative cap or limit on lawsuit recovery.

But I'm sure THIS verdict will engender no complaints from NYC officials about our tort system. Welcome to the double standard that is our litigation system. After being in the litigation trenches for over 20 years now, the real world definition of a frivolous lawsuit donned on me a few years ago.

The textbook definition of a frivolous lawsuit in Ohio is:

Conduct that serves merely to harass or maliciously injure another party, or is for another improper purpose;

Conduct that is not warranted under existing law, cannot be supported by a good faith argument for a change of existing law, or for the establishment of new law;

Allegations that have no evidentiary support or are not likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery.

Forget how the law defines a "frivolous lawsuit." You want the street definition? Here it is: Any lawsuit other than mine."

It's those "other people" out there that are abusing the system. "They" are trying to get something for nothing from cities like NYC, so the thought goes. But our claim, or in this case, New York City's, is valid and proper. This seems to be the prevailing mentality of people utilizing the legal system. In fairness, there is some truth to this belief, because some people try to take advantage of the system. More importantly, though, the "any lawsuit other than mine is frivolous" mentality exposes how subjective public attitudes about our legal system really are. One person's valid lawsuit is another person's "frivolous lawsuit." That term gets tossed around so loosely and so often that it has lost its true meaning with the public.

It's very similar to all the current cries for "tort reform." What it truly means is that people generally have no objection to cracking down on "those other lawsuits out there," but get really ticked when they discover that tort reform has infected and limited their legitimate lawsuit.

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