WASHINGTON, October 31, 2012 – Statistics from The National Center for State Courts reveal that we Americans, across all states, file about 16 million civil lawsuits each year. As a personal injury attorney, I took particular interest in learning that since 1998, the number of personal injury lawsuits filed each year has declined about 25%, and now accounts for about 4.4% of that 16 million total (just more than 700,000).
Lawsuits fascinate us. They are the subject of fiction and non-fiction movies, novels, and real life water-cooler discussion. Sports stars and celebrity lawsuits are often, easily half of the content of the evening gossip television shows.
Some among us cannot stand to just watch; your neighbor may have filed a lawsuit yesterday over something you might think is bizarre.
A VERY small percentage of lawsuits that are filed every year are meritless. Many are funny.
One of my mottos in talking to potential clients is because you have the right to do something does not mean you should.
Hulk Hogan (whose real name is Terry Gene Bollea), the famous pseudo (professional?) wrestler, is responsible in the past two years for filing five of those 16 million lawsuits. He most recently sued radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge, claiming that Bubba released a sex tape of him and Bubba’s ex-wife, damaging his reputation.
Last December the Hulkster sued his ex-wife for defamation, claiming that the statements in her tell-all book that he had numerous homosexual encounters hurt his reputation.
In February of last year, Hogan sued a car dealer who used numerous “Hulk” likenesses, images and slogans in the dealership’s ads without compensating him.
In May, 2010 Hogan sued Post Foods, specifically Cocoa Pebbles, again for using his likeness in their ads, again without compensating him.
In April, 2010 Hogan sued his long-time insurance broker for malpractice. Hogan’s automobile insurance policy limits were not adequate to pay for the damages his son’s reckless driving caused, and Hogan maintained the broker should have advised him of and sold him an umbrella policy with much higher limits.
There are people who do indeed file ridiculous lawsuits, and there are indeed many people who file way too many lawsuits. A large majority of these are filed “pro-se,” that is, without an attorney. It occurs to me they probably consulted an attorney who told them they had no case.
The coverage of the sensational or the ridiculous lawsuit gave rise to a phrase created by tort reformers. You’ve heard it: frivolous lawsuit. Tort reformers, those bent on avoiding responsibility and reducing responsibility for the wrongs and harms their members, supporters, constituents, etc. cause, use the phrase to convince you and the public that this lawsuit has no merit. Guilt by association if you will.
An example is the insurance industry’s effort to pay less money to people involved in car accidents, where the cost to repair the car is relatively small. The logic of applying the term frivolous lawsuit to this type of case is designed to convince you that because there is little damage to a car after an accident, the occupant cannot possibly be injured, and has thus filed a frivolous lawsuit.
In attempting to brainwash you by repetitive use of the phrase, if and when you sit on a jury to decide such a case, likely you will be inclined not to believe the claim of the injured person that they were in fact injured.
Devious these tort reformers are.
Know that most claims of “frivolous” are not true. If a case has no merit, as will be discussed later, the courts weeds it out.
Nonetheless there are without doubt meritless lawsuits filed, and they do indeed take some of the time, effort and resources of our judiciary to weed through them.
My wife reacts any time she hears of a ridiculous case. I react also, but in a different way. I am fascinated by the stories. I try to figure out what is the motivation. I cannot get past the title of the lawsuit: Hulk Hogan vs. Bubba the Love Sponge.
Coverage in the media about interesting and controversial lawsuits makes headlines just about every day. Take the case of a 14-year-old who sued her friend for losing her iPod, or the music industry suing a 12-year-old for downloading music from the Internet, or Hulk Hogan suing Bubba the Love Sponge.
The truth about the ridiculous civil lawsuit filings is that there is a mechanism in place to dispose of them, whether they are individual claims or the multiple claims of people who just have nothing better to do than file multiple lawsuits.
The courts weed out cases that have no merit. The good thing about our system of civil justice is that anybody can file a lawsuit. Generally speaking, if it has merit, the parties can have their day in court. It takes a great deal of imagination to believe a jury is going to get it wrong. It does happen, but mostly not. Juries are pretty intelligent as a unit.
Prolific plaintiffs, people who just cannot seem to stay away from the court system, are handled in a different manner when their lawsuits continue to have no merit. Judges will recognize frequent filers and ultimately ban them from filing lawsuits. These folks are placed on lists and labeled “restricted filers,” and judges order their court clerks to return, unfiled, any new legal claims they submit. So that these folks are not completely denied their constitutional right to use the court system, rules exist about when, how and if these people can file suits once they are on the blacklist.
A Chicago woman filed six lawsuits in federal court in Chicago involving a dispute with Roosevelt University. She claims she was expelled unjustly just before she got her doctorate. Each time the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction or duplication, she brought it back again.
In 2008, a panel of federal judges declared her a “restricted filer.”
A man from Texas filed over 12 lawsuits in Chicago federal court before he made the restricted list in 2010. In one suit he claimed he was due $25 million from the FBI, because they were “neurophonically harassing me out of my house” by reading his thoughts through a program “more painful than waterboarding.”
Another prolific plaintiff is Yaodi Hu, 52. His 17 suits include claims against the Chicago suburbs of Maywood and Midlothian and two against the city of Chicago.
In one of his lawsuits, Hu stated that he attended Chicago-Kent College of Law for two years until 1991 but did not graduate. He tried to re-enroll but was denied credit for his previous courses. He then mounted a legal challenge to the American Bar Association rule requiring law students to graduate within seven years of starting their studies.
The case reached the appellate court, which found it “meritless” and upheld its dismissal. Still, that case alone involved the filing of 55 documents and at least 10 court orders, records show.
Be skeptical when you hear “frivolous” preceding the word “lawsuit.” Know that the bigger picture is that big business, insurers, the auto industry, pharmaceutical groups, doctors groups, and many others who unfortunately often injure your neighbor, and who often put profits ahead of safety, do not want to be held accountable. If you land on a jury, I trust you will be smart enough to vote “no” if the facts do not support the claims. Because you voted “no” or because the media slanted the story to make it appear without merit does not mean the case should not have gone through the process for a full and fair review.
Enjoy the legal system from afar, keep watching the gossip shows as they highlight legal hoopla, hope you are not sued, and exercise restraint knowing that because you have the right to do something does not mean you should.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.
His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.