Have you heard the term “frivolous lawsuit” before? It sometimes comes up when people discuss things like seemingly unnecessary warning labels on items—such as “caution: hot coffee” on a coffee cup. You may roll your eyes and think, “well, of course it’s hot. It’s coffee.” And you may wonder what would prompt the company to print that label. Perhaps they have been sued before, or are trying to prevent customers from suing them. And that may seem, on the surface, to be a frivolous kind of lawsuit.
But are frivolous lawsuits really rampant in the U.S., and are we truly an overly litigious society? In reality: no. Although insurance companies and their lobbyists want to make it seem like Americans are recklessly litigious, this is simply not the case. In fact, statistics actually show the opposite—that this alleged explosion of frivolous lawsuits in America is just a myth. According to the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, only 10% of Americans who have been injured file a claim for compensation, and just 2% file a lawsuit. And most of the time, these suits are settled outside of a courtroom.
The reality is that many people who suffer injuries do not file lawsuits. They may be intimidated by the potential cost of litigation, or the stigma that is sometimes associated with personal injury cases. The injured person may also be concerned that others will see the lawsuit as just an attempt to get money.
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) analyzed civil lawsuit data for 26 states. The NCSC reported that tort cases—those involving an injured party seeking damages from a negligent party—made up less than 3% of all civil cases in 13 of those states, 3-5% of civil cases in 8 states, and 5-8.2% of civil cases in 5 states. Moreover, product liability cases and medical malpractice claims make up less than 1% of civil cases. The majority of civil caseload is made up of contract and small claims cases. Overall, tort cases in the U.S. are on the decline. In 13 states, tort filings decreased by 25% from 1999 to 2008.
What About that Hot Coffee Lawsuit?
The example at the beginning of this post is actually a real lawsuit that is frequently cited by those claiming Americans file too many frivolous lawsuit. But what actually happened in that case?
Stella Liebeck was 79 years old in 1992, when the incident occurred. She was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped in a McDonald’s parking lot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had the cup of coffee between her legs as she was adding cream and sugar to it. The cup then tipped over and spilled in her lap. The coffee seared through her sweatpants and caused Liebeck to suffer third-degree burns on her legs, which required skin grafts. The coffee was not just hot—it was dangerously hot. Hot enough to cause the most serious type of burn.
At the time, McDonald’s had already received more than 700 reports of injuries from its hot coffee and had already paid out several settlements. Liebeck asked McDonald’s to settle the case for $20,000 to compensate her for medical expenses and lost income. McDonald’s would not settle the claim for more than $800, so the lawsuit proceeded to trial. The jury found Liebeck partially responsible for her injuries, and the compensatory damages awarded were adjusted accordingly. The award was eventually reduced by the judge, and McDonald’s ultimately settled the claim with Liebeck confidentially to avoid an appeal.
The evidence that was presented during the trial revealed just how not frivolous this lawsuit was. According to the findings, McDonald’s required its franchises to keep coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Liquids kept at that temperature can cause third-degree burns in as quickly as three seconds. Expert witnesses testified that the risk of harm presented by serving coffee at this temperature was unacceptable. McDonald’s also admitted to being aware of the risk of its hot coffee for more than a decade. However, the company’s expert witness stated that the number of burns that actually occurred was insignificant in the context of the billions of cups of coffee served each year.
What’s the Verdict on Frivolous Lawsuits?
Real data regarding litigation in the U.S. reveals that the idea that Americans are prone to frivolous lawsuits is largely a myth. Most personal injury lawsuits are legitimate claims for compensation due to injury and loss caused by negligence. Moreover, the ability to file these types of claims is crucial to maintaining justice and accountability in our society.
“Insurance companies promote myths about frivolous lawsuits because it serves their agenda. Don’t be ashamed to stand up for your rights if you have been injured. Sometimes a lawsuit is necessary to get the compensation you deserve,” said Attorney Walter Clark, founder of Walter Clark Legal Group.
Our firm has been handling personal injury cases throughout the California Low Desert and High Desert communities for over 30 years. With a 95% success rate, the California personal injury attorneys at Walter Clark Legal Group will fight to hold those responsible for your loss accountable and win compensation to cover medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If you have been injured and want to discuss your legal options, contact us today at (760) 777-7777 for a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer. We have offices in Indio, Rancho Mirage, Victorville, El Centro, and Yucca Valley, and represent clients through the entire California Low Desert and High Desert communities.
DISCLAIMER: The Walter Clark Legal Group blog is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal or medical advice. References to laws are based on general legal practices and vary by location. Information reported comes from secondary news sources. We do handle these types of cases, but whether or not the individuals and/or loved ones involved in these accidents choose to be represented by a law firm is a personal choice we respect. Should you find any of the information incorrect, we welcome you to contact us with corrections.
Our firm has been handling a variety of personal injury cases throughout the California High Desert communities for over 30 years. Here you will find a personal injury attorney who can help protect your rights and obtain compensation for your injuries.