On Civil Litigation, Part 1: Narratives About Plaintiffs and Lawsuits
Author’s Note: This post is the first in a series that looks at the civil justice system and various narratives about lawsuits. Today’s post uses a well-known 1994 case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, as a starting point to discuss a few of the more common ideas surrounding tort litigation.
Poor Stella Liebeck. All she wanted was a cup of McDonald’s coffee. The 79-year old woman certainly never intended to become famous, or infamous, depending on which versions of the narrative prevail. In any case, Stella got her cup of coffee, along with extremely painful 3rd degree burns on her thighs and groin, which required hospitalization and skin grafts to correct. Ms. Liebeck never disputed that she spilled the coffee on herself while trying to add cream and sugar; McDonald’s never disputed that the coffee was served at temperatures between 180 and 190 degrees (approximately 82 to 87 degrees Celsius for our non-American readers). An Albuquerque jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages, primarily for medical expenses, and $2.7 million in punitive damages – an amount reduced by the judge to $480,000 and reduced further still on appeal, before settling on an undisclosed amount.
The above story is the (very) short version; the details of Ms. Liebeck’s case have been thoroughly documented elsewhere. For film fans, the HBO documentary Hot Coffee (2011) is worth a look, while those interested in a more academic analysis should check out Chapter 6 of William Haltom and Michael McCann’s Distorting the Law (the entire book is well worth the read). But it would be nearly impossible to discuss narratives about civil litigation without at least mentioning Ms. Liebeck, whose case ignited major debates over personal injury lawsuits and tort reform.
Tort suits are lawsuits in which an injured party demands compensation via civil courts from the party that allegedly harmed them. Stella Liebeck’s case, for example, was a products liability case – a case in which a dangerous or defective product causes an injury. As with many social phenomena, the ways we come to understand and interpret lawsuits are socially constructed and, in many ways, reflect the prevailing cultural logic. Some of the more common narratives surrounding lawsuits include:
- Plaintiffs are greedy: Under this paradigm, people who sue are trying to win the “litigation lottery,” using the courts as a vehicle for personal financial gain by winning large verdicts. By suing defendants with “deep pockets” – typically corporations with lots of money and insurance coverage – plaintiffs are out to enrich themselves at someone else’s expense. In Stella’s case, the $2.7 million dollar verdict may raise some eyebrows, despite the fact she never asked for that amount, as the punitive damages were set by the jury (and later reduced, anyway).
- Plaintiffs are irresponsible: According to this narrative plaintiffs (particularly personal injury plaintiffs) in an attempt to shirk responsibility, blame others for injuries they inflicted on themselves. Stella, for example, readily admitted that she spilled the coffee on herself. In the United States, where individual responsibility and self-reliance are highly valued, filing a lawsuit is often seen as a failure to take care of oneself or accept responsibility for one’s actions. As David Engel has famously shown, these prevailing norms are actually a powerful force in deterring lawsuits (also noteworthy: social distance and social change play a role as well).
- We have too many frivolous lawsuits: Remember the Washington, D.C. judge who sued a dry cleaner for $54 million over a lost pair of pants? Certainly a frivolous lawsuit by any rational standard, but cases such as this are far from the norm. Lawsuits such as this make for sensational headlines and good material for comedians, but the “frivolous” label becomes problematic when applied without discretion.
- Lawsuits hurt everyone: This narrative suggests the (supposed) harms caused by lawsuits, often frivolous or unnecessary lawsuits, hurt more than just the defendant. An example of this would be the suggestion that medical malpractice suits cause doctors to close up shop due to runaway insurance costs, leaving communities without adequate healthcare. The power behind this narrative is that one person’s individual problem transforms into an issue that affects everyone once it goes to court – by overburdening the civil justice system, by driving out competent doctors, or forcing businesses to compensate for the economic losses associated with large verdicts.
Individually none of these narratives wield enormous power, despite their prevalence. But taken together, they provide a constellation of reasons for opposing civil lawsuits. They factor prominently in the debate over tort reform, which will be the subject of part 2 in this series (which will appear here on 13 August). Until then, readers, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment section below. Specifically, have you heard any of these narratives before, and is litigation as problematic as these narratives suggest?
Engel, David. 1984. “The Oven Bird’s Song: Insiders, Outsiders, and Personal Injuries in an American Community.” Law & Society Review 18(4):551-582.
Haltom, William, and Michael McCann. 2004. Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis. IL: University of Chicago Press.