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So-called “frivolous lawsuits” - Fact & Fiction

The term “frivolous lawsuits” keeps creeping into Florida’s political lexicon, but how much of what we hear is actually true? According to the American Medical Association (AMA), not much.

Governor Rick Scott visited Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami last week to highlight newly enacted legislation that in his words (via his website) “increases health care options and patient choice, improves quality of care, and protects taxpayers from skyrocketing Medicaid costs.” The pharmaceutical and insurance industries would have us believe those skyrocketing costs are due to the trial lawyers and so-called frivolous lawsuits (which Gov. Scott also mentions in his website). But let’s separate fact from fiction when it comes to the cost of litigation.

Myth: The rising costs associated with medical malpractice are pushing insurance premiums up and forcing doctors to quit their jobs or relocate to other states.

Fact: Data from the AMA shows physician numbers have been increasing across the board for many years. In fact, the number of physicians in the U.S. has increased more than 40% since 1990, yet the population has only increased 18% over the same time. It’s true that health care costs are rising, but medical malpractice legislation has little or nothing to do with that. According to the Congressional Budget Office, malpractice litigation amounted to less than 2% of overall health care spending.

Myth: The number of lawsuits filed is skyrocketing.

Fact: The number of personal injury cases has declined for years. According to the National Center for State Courts, tort cases made up just 4% of all civil cases filed in 2008. That number is down 25% since 1999.

Myth: Small businesses are hurt the most by injury lawsuits.

Fact: Giant corporations fear lawsuits the most and fight the hardest to pass reform. As a Miami business owner myself, I can tell you my daily worries have nothing to do with fear of being sued. In fact, a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business found “costs and frequency of lawsuits” ranked 65th of a list of small business owners’ worries. Economic worries far outranked tort reform concern for small business. But “big business” is another story. In reality, it is Big Oil, Big Insurance and Big Drug companies that lobby the most for lawsuit reform in this country. And here is my favorite…

Myth: Lawsuits are out of control when people sue because they spilled hot coffee in their lap.

Fact:  It’s true, there are frivolous lawsuits but judges throw those out of court to make room for legitimate cases. Ms. Stella Liebeck has been mocked for years by those looking to destroy the civil justice system. But there is absolutely nothing funny about this now-infamous case. Ms. Liebeck’s injuries included third-degree burns to her groin, inner thighs, and buttocks. She spent eight days in the hospital having painful skin grafting and surgical removal of tissue. 

Despite critics’ claims that the victim was “looking to make some money,” Ms. Liebeck originally asked to settle her claim with McDonald’s for a mere $20,000, but McDonald’s refused. Over the course of the case, the fast food chain produced documents showing more than 700 other patrons has been severely burned by the coffee over a 10-year period (some as severe as Ms. Liebeck’s).

McDonald’s own quality assurance manager testified that burns can be severe with coffee hotter than 140 degrees, yet the company kept the coffee warm at 185 degrees. When all was said and done, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages (about two days worth in coffee sales for McDonald’s), which was eventually reduced to $480,000.

There are many more facts about this case that might shock you. I highly recommend a new documentary (now showing on HBO) called Hot Coffee. It’s an excellent look at how media perception is often different from the facts of high profile injury cases. 

My advice to anyone who thinks injury lawsuits are “frivolous” or otherwise is: do your homework and don’t believe media hype.