“By now, most every American has his own tale about some silly lawsuit run amok, from the post-tobacco obesity suits targeting McDonald’s to the $7.2 million settlement former ‘Tonight Show’ sidekick Ed McMahon won after suing over house mold he claimed had killed his dog,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial yesterday. The Journal is exactly right. Our favorite is a woman who got nearly $10 million after lying down in front of a train to commit suicide.
As the lawsuit game gets steadily more ridiculous, it has also become increasingly lucrative. In 2002, there were 22 jury verdicts that doled out over $100 million, and there were more than 100 verdicts over $20 million. In 1991, by contrast, there were a mere 38 verdicts reaching the $20 million mark. And “Trial Lawyers, Inc.” netted around $40 billion last year, according to a new study by the Manhattan Institute.
Center for Consumer Freedom executive director Richard Berman participated yesterday in a “great debate” over obesity lawsuits against restaurants. Fireball John Banzhaf — whose actions confirm the worst about trial lawyers — was in the opposition. The Public Health Advocacy Institute’s (PHAI) Ben Kelley was also on Banzhaf’s side, but tried to present himself as a conciliatory voice. The Wall Street Journal‘s Advertising page bought PHAI’s moderate line yesterday, calling it “an advocacy group for public health.” And The Washington Post simply labeled PHAI a “nonprofit.”
What the Post and the Journal failed to mention is that PHAI held a June 2003 conference “intended to encourage and support litigation against the food industry,” and which specifically excluded representatives of food companies and restaurants. At yesterday’s debate, Banzhaf proclaimed that there exists no “common ground” between trial lawyers and food companies. Despite Kelley’s rhetoric, that appears to be PHAI’s position as well.
Some may ask: So what? Why should I care if trial lawyers gorge themselves on exhorbitant judgments from a few big companies? The answer: You should care because prices will rise, menus will change, and some products will simply be taken off the market — all to please lawyers, not consumers. Think that’s an exaggeration? A lawsuit filed by someone who broke his ankle in 2000 resulted in the cancellation of a decades-old Arizona softball tournament this year. And when is the last time you saw a diving board at a community swimming pool?
We noted in July that only nine percent of Americans support obesity lawsuits.
And it looks like Americans are coming around to the position that trial lawyers generally do more harm than good. A recent poll by the Winston Group reports that 74 percent of us understand that class action lawsuits “increase the cost of the products you buy.”
56% (versus 32%) agree with the statement: “Trial attorneys are only focused on making money, and take advantage of people to fulfill their own self interest in the guise of doing a public service.”
48% (versus 38%) agree with the statement: “Lawsuits are costing America jobs because businesses have had to spend huge amounts of money in settlements and legal fees, which have resulted in layoffs and job losses. Many of these lawsuits are frivolous and lawyers have taken advantage of the situation at the expense of working Americans.”
51% (versus 34%) agree with the statement: “Class action lawsuits have abused [the] judicial system, resulting in frivolous lawsuits which allow attorneys to reap millions in attorneys’ fees when claimants receive little or nothing. These lawsuits have clogged the legal system, meaning legitimate cases sometimes take years to be heard often times preventing settlements from being reached.”