Editorial: We need to change our lawsuit culture

Editorial Board

Few people would consider brushes with our legal system to be anything but a serious matter. Oddly enough though, it is increasingly home to a bizarre and wild array of seemingly laughable controversies.

Most people will remember the national attention a woman received in 1994 when she suffered third degree burns from spilling McDonald’s coffee on her lap and then sued McDonald’s for damages. After refusing to settle out of court, McDonald’s was found to owe Ms. Liebeck over $2.5 million by a New Mexico jury, although a judge later reduced the amount to around $650,000.

Ms. Liebeck’s story became a rallying point for civil lawsuit reform and has even been the focus of numerous documentaries.

Tort law, the legal name for civil law cases, has long been seen as an important, if slightly misunderstood, part of our legal system.

Normally, when someone commits a crime, like theft or assault, it is said that he has actually harmed the state, meaning the government and all of the people it protects. This is why a county or state — and sometimes the United States itself — will bring legal action against wrongs committed.

Cases where someone’s actions are not necessarily a crime that the state would punish but that have caused some form of injury to another will usually be decided by civil lawsuits. These largely consist of the injured person or persons receiving money from the injuring party to make up for any loss.

The amount of money received, or even that there was a case at all, all too often makes it seem like our system of laws is governed by absurd rules.

A recent example of such absurdity is the nearly $40,000 received in workers’ compensation by a campus police officer from the University of California Davis. The officer in question was filmed pepper-spraying a group of sitting protesters in 2011.

While the students who were sprayed have since received compensation of their own, the officer claimed that he also suffered “psychiatric and nervous system” damage as a result of his work.

His award, and the awarding of other absurd monetary compensation, simply needs to stop. Yes, there are completely valid uses of civil lawsuits and there are completely valid times when the actions of an employer injures the workers.

But this does not mean that legal action should be taken or threatened at the slightest provocation.

It’s not always enough to rely on our system of laws to decide cases fairly. Even when a jury or judge does not find fault or cause for damages, the legal fees encountered or the negative publicity faced can be daunting challenges on their own that serve no constructive purpose.

Creating a system where people genuinely think that they deserve to be given money for having their pants lost at a dry cleaners — which is exactly what happened to Roy Pearson before he sued for $67 million in the case of Pearson v. Chung — is neither what was intended by those who have created our laws nor what we should want from our justice system.

While the specifics of tort reform are best left to the experts, we can all agree that the lawsuit culture of contemporary society has gone too far. But it’s not just up to those shaping our laws to begin reform — it’s our responsibility as well.

Personal responsibility can be a lot to ask, and there are times when it can be very hard to live up to, but pointing fingers at corporations with deep pockets or individuals who have done nothing terribly wrong is not a real solution.

Unfortunately bad things happen; this is a fact of life that won’t change anytime soon. When those bad things do happen, though, engaging in frivolous lawsuits often does more harm than good.