William “Bill” Hurst, Indiana Personal Injury Lawyer
In the last ten to fifteen years there has been a lot of talk about accident lawsuits creating backup in the courts, and more specifically personal injury accident cases. Much of this talk centers on the idea that too many frivolous Indiana personal injury accident cases are filed causing the courts to deal with ridiculous cases instead of being able to get to the really important lawsuits. The problem with this concept is that it is completely false. There are multiple reasons frivolous claims are rarely brought including attorney sanctions for bringing such claims, monetary incentives, and Indiana courts can dispose of such cases without allowing them to get to trial. In all my time practicing I have seldom, if ever, seen a frivolous accident lawsuit in Indiana. Why? Because it is difficult to resolve or settle any injury claim, even those which are clearly owed. Certainly a lawsuit without merit ends in a personal debt for the attorney and client.
In this post-tort reform era there are still people claiming that too many frivolous lawsuits are brought and that Indiana personal injury accident claims are to blame for backed up courts. This just is not true. The statistics point to the exact opposite. Civil suits make up about 75% of all cases filed in the United States. Personal injury accident cases, however only make up around 1.3% of those civil cases.1 Further, only 1 out of every 10 injured people seek compensation and only 2% of those people file lawsuits. So only 2 out of every 1,000 people who are injured file lawsuits to recover for their injuries. And the idea that personal injury cases often bring in large amount of cash is also false, on average personal injury claims are only awarded $31,000.2 So why have Indiana personal injury cases received such a bad reputation? The simple answer is because large corporations and insurance companies don’t like paying for injuries they are responsible for causing or covering the cost of so they portrayed personal injury cases poorly. The most famous example of this is the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case.
The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case is probably the most recognized personal injury case ever and also is the poster child for “frivolous” lawsuits. But was it really frivolous? Of course it was right? Some old lady sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on herself while driving, got some minor burns and got a million dollar settlement because of it.
Well, that is not exactly how it happened. First, the woman was not driving when she spilled the coffee on herself. She was sitting in the passenger seat of the car and the car was parked in the McDonald’s parking lot. Does that change your opinion? How about the fact that McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints of the coffee being too hot and causing burns? What if I told you there was also communication proving that McDonald’s ignored the complaints after doing a study that proved the coffee was too hot because it would have cost them more to fix the problem than they thought it would cost for the injuries the hot coffee caused? How about the fact that the woman had third degree burns between her legs and had to have skin grafts to repair the damage? Even if all of that does not change your mind, consider the fact that the woman only requested a $20,000 settlement to cover her out-of-pocket medical expenses. The millions of dollars that the jury awarded were punitive damages and the jury award was reduced to $640,000 later.3 This lawsuit was not frivolous, but McDonald’s wants to think it was because if everyone knew these facts their reputation would have been devastated.
Other cases such as the “Ladder and Manure” case and the “Phone Booth” case have received similar criticism. In the “Ladder and Manure” case the media said a man sued a ladder company after he put his ladder on a manure pile and fell because it slipped. But what really happened was the ladder snapped at the bottom with only 700 pounds on it even though it had a 1,000 pound rating. In the “Phone Booth” case that Ronald Reagan so frequently commented on it was claimed that a man sued a phone company after he was hit by a drunk driver while using a phone booth. What was not talked about was the fact that the phone booth was faulty and had it not been the man would have been able to get out safely. It also was not mentioned that the same phone booth had been hit just 20 months prior, showing it was in a bad spot and arguable too close to the road. These are just a few examples of the personal injury cases that were made to look frivolous, but really were not. Now obviously there are some bad ones, like the guy who is suing because the commentators made fun of him on national TV because he fell asleep at a Yankees game, by himself, but for the most part personal injury claims have merit and are not responsible for clogging up the courts as many people have alleged.
Personal injury attorneys stray from bringing frivolous claims for many reasons. One, they can be sanctioned for bringing such frivolous claims. Second, they work on a contingency fee and bringing a case to trial costs a lot of money and time. No one wants to put a ton of money and time into a poor investment that they will likely never get a return on. Lastly, courts can quickly dispose of a frivolous case by dismissing it, so even if it is brought it probably won’t make it to trial.
We continue to hear this argument because proponents of tort reform such as insurance companies and large business, are pushing it in order to change public perception and jaundice the jury pool. Both of these goals have been successfully met and the public’s view is now unfairly skewed against personal injury claims.