Lawsuits you didn’t know you were paying for

By Connie Scott
Every year each one of us spends $721 for something we didn’t even know we’d bought – lawsuits.

Much of that money – an individual’s estimated share of the cost of lawsuits filed each year – is being wasted on abuses of our court system. Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week, October 6-10, is a good opportunity to see just where we’re spending our money and why.

Many of you may not believe lawsuit abuse impacts your life if you’ve never filed a lawsuit or been sued. But no matter who you are or what you do, lawsuit abuse affects your life in numerous ways, some of which you may not realize. Paying more for prescription drugs, doctors’ visits, groceries or household items in general? Some of those higher costs can be traced directly to lawsuits or their threat.

On top of our direct costs, we’re also paying more in taxes as cities, counties and school boards protect themselves from actual or potential lawsuits in an increasing litigious society. Even if it wins a suit, like a business or individual, a government still must spend time and money (in this case, taxpayer dollars) to defend itself.

While we might not realize the cost of lawsuits, cities and counties are sure aware of it. For example, in the past three years, the Texas Association of Counties self-insurance fund – which allows counties to band together to obtain coverage – paid out more than $8.3 million in legal costs alone, not including the money actually paid out in losses. As payouts rise, so do insurance premiums. Litigation, or its threat, is a growing line item in city, county and school district budgets. And that cost is being passed on to us, the taxpayers.

It’s not only major cities or urban schools districts that are affected. Consider the case of Elgin, a city of about 5,600 people just east of Austin. There, city officials consider possible liability with every action.

Like most cities, Elgin takes great care to avoid becoming a defendant in a lawsuit. For example, when the city swimming pool opened a few years ago, city leaders sought to ease the threat of lawsuits by including plenty of painted warnings around the pool, but no high diving board.

Elgin’s insurance carrier recently denied a claim filed by a family who said a dog adopted from the city’s animal shelter bit their son. Pet adoptions were suspended while the claim was being reviewed, meaning that once local shelters were full, the animals had to be put down – a sad consequence of the impact of a lawsuit.

Not all lawsuits are without merit. The truly injured certainly deserve their day in court. And our court system has been used to right serious wrongs, force recalls of dangerous products and stop discriminatory behavior.

But, lately, our court system seems to be a substitute for personal responsibility. Is it really necessary for a company to spend the money to put a warning sign on a butane lighter that reads, “Flame may cause fire”? Obviously, the manufacturer felt the need to protect itself with this warning label, just as cities feel the need to protect them by posting warning signs at the municipal pool.

While lawsuit abuse is costing us money – as both individuals and as taxpayers – it also is threatening many of the things we take for granted.

The demise of the high dive is just one of the more subtle signs of our excessive litigation environment. Other all-American institutions – everything from sports teams to school events to Scout programs, and even our favorite fast food restaurant – are in danger. The increased liability and the cost of protection against lawsuits make the risk too great and it becomes safer to do away with anything that could possibly pose a risk.

On a greater level, lawsuits or their threat have driven doctors from underserved communities and are preventing companies from bringing potentially life-saving drugs to the market. Small business owners fear that one claim, even the nuttiest of lawsuits, could throw them and their employees out of work. And employees, if they aren’t concerned about possibly losing their jobs, fear their health insurance benefits will disappear, shrink or require them to pick up more of the cost, if employer premiums get too expensive.

We, as individuals, and our communities stand to lose much if the litigation assault is not blunted.

Connie Scott is the executive director of Bay Area Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267