We All Pay When Others
File Frivolous Lawsuits

By Joseph Perkins
I've got a programming suggestion for Court TV. How about a weekly show called "The F-files?" It could feature two intrepid tort reformers investigating frivolous legal claims.

The beauty of the show is that it could be based on the latest true-to-life lawsuits.

Like the whopping $1.5 million claim against the Escondido (California) Public Library. It was filed by a San Carlos, CA., man who alleges that his dog, a 50-pound Labrador mix, was attacked by the library's feline mascot (L.C., also known as Library Cat).

Or the $700,000 lawsuit that a Middletown, Pa., teen-ager filed against her former softball coach. She claims that his "incorrect" teaching style stunted her development as an athlete, ruining her shot at a college scholarship.

Then there's the Hatfield, Mass., man who seeks $250,000 in restitution from the Massachusetts Electric Co. stemming from the death of his "lucky" cat. The man's wife, a security guard, took the feline to work with her where it was electrocuted by an uninsulated wire near her security trailer.

The purpose of this show would not necessarily be to entertain (although viewers might find it amusing to see what absurd lengths some folks will go to in an effort to enrich themselves through the legal system).

Rather, it is to apprise the public of the rash of lawsuits clogging state and local court dockets throughout the country. And to enlighten them about the economic toll that lawsuit abuse imposes upon society.

Indeed, more than 15 million lawsuits will be filed this year in state courts throughout the land. That works out to one new lawsuit every two seconds.

Meanwhile, the litigation explosion costs American consumers and businesses more than $150 billion a year, according to a study by the actuarial accounting firm Tillinghast-Towers Perrin. That is more than two and one-half times what the nation spends each year on police and fire protection.

The costs trickle down to consumers in the form of a hidden tax -- a "tort tax."

It accounts, for example, for $8 of an $11.50 diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) vaccine, $191 of a $578 tonsillectomy, $170 of a $1,000 motorized wheelchair, and $3,000 of an $18,000 heart pacemaker.

So what can be done to staunch the nation's litigation explosion? To reduce the number of lawsuits added to state and local court dockets each year (from one every two seconds to maybe one every five seconds)? To lower the direct and indirect costs of litigation?

It so happens that George W. Bush signed a host of legal reforms when he was governor of Texas that transformed the Lone Star State from one of the most litigious to one of the least. Texas placed a cap on punitive damage awards, made its joint-and-several liability law more equitable and limited judge and court shopping.

Caps on punitive damages discourage litigants from trying to parlay claims of negligible economic damages into multimillion courtroom jackpots.

Like the Escondido dog owner whose 40-page claim says he was out of pocket for $46.49 in veterinary treatment for his pooch and another $38 in chiropractic treatment for himself. Yet he seeks more than 30,000 times as much in punitive damages.

Joint-and-several liability laws in many states allow a litigant suing multiple targets to seek any damages regardless of a given plaintiff's negligence.

This makes deep-pocket businesses (and individuals) a ripe target. For while a business or (individual) may be found no more than, say, 11 percent responsible for some injury or another -- like a ruined softball career -- they could be forced to pay up to 100 percent of damages.

That's why our Levittown softballer sued not only her former coach -- who probably doesn't have an extra $700,000 lying around -- but also implicated her softball team's parents organization and the local athletic association. Among them all, she hopes to collect the 700-large.

Limits on judge and court shopping prevent litigants from seeking out venues where they think they are most likely to get favorable hearing. Claims must be brought in venues with a substantial connection to the injury.

So the Hatfield cat lover could not shop around for a court that draws its jury pool from a community that boasts a disproportionate number of cat owners. He would have to file it with the court where Massachusetts Electric is located or, maybe, the court closest to where his kitty lost one of its nine lives.

So what were the results of Texas' legal reforms? Personal injury lawsuits (not related to motor vehicle accidents) have decreased 30 percent since 1995. Texas businesses and consumers saved nearly $3 billion in insurance rate reductions alone.

The Texas experience should be instructive to lawmakers in California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other states whose courts are inundated each year by a flood of lawsuits.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

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