A Frivolous Redefinition

A New York Times editorial argues that Kraft’s pledge to reduce portion sizes means “the fast-growing campaign to hold food companies responsible for adverse nutritional effects … may not have been so frivolous after all.” Unfortunately, the Times is only the most recent paper to fall victim to the semantic games and twisted logic of
professional ambulance chaser John Banzhaf, who is on a sustained campaign to change the meaning of the word “frivolous.” Testifying before Congress last month, Banzhaf argued:

If, as the industry repeatedly claims, these fat law suits are truly frivolous, the industry needs no Congressional protection from law suits which are “of no consequence” and therefore will be thrown out by trial judges and, if need be, appellate judges. But if they are not frivolous … then these important issues should first be decided by the courts.

Banzhaf is playing fast and loose with the meaning of the word “frivolous.” The American Heritage Dictionary gives the word’s definition as “unworthy of serious attention” and “inappropriately silly.” Which these lawsuits certainly are.

But just because they are meritless doesn’t mean companies won’t incur significant costs defending against them — or even that the lawsuits have no chance of ever succeeding. For example, one man was awarded $200,000 after claiming that a car crash turned him into a homosexual. A woman got nearly $10 million (reduced from the original $14.1 million) for injuries suffered after she lay down in front of a train in order to commit suicide.

Given Banzhaf’s plans “to sue them and sue them and sue them” there is an outside possibility that he’s right when he says “somewhere there will be a jury that returns a verdict, and then the genie will be out of the bottle.”

Even if Banzhaf eventually wins an obesity lawsuit (he hasn’t yet), that won’t change the fact that they are without merit. Whatever verbal games he plays, when people call these lawsuits frivolous, it means that they shouldn’t win, not that they won’t.

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