Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Litigation-Happy Country?

By Alexandra Catalano

For years Americans and people from other countries have said that America is a litigation happy country, that Americans will sue for every little thing, anyone who watches the news sees the frivolous lawsuits that go through our court systems every year. However, after reading The Myth of the Litigious Society by David Engel, I have learned that Americans are not as litigious as they are made out to be.  The majority of Americans injured each year do not even make a claim; rather, they lump their injuries,  brushing them off for many reasons. 

In chapter seven, Engel speaks about the physical environment around us.  He addresses how Americans face injuries everyday and some say nothing, while others who are injured bring a lawsuit.  The majority of people would rather “lump” their injuries then bring a claim.  The first example he raises in this chapter is stairs.  A ninety-one-year-old woman was attending a celebratory mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where she fell and was severely injured; this woman chose to sue the church. Engel says that she was “one of the 1 to 2 million Americans who fall and suffer injuries on stairs every year…and litigation is extremely rare.”  This comment stood out because bringing a suit for falling on stairs could be one of the reasons why America is seen as a litigation crazed country.  Another example that Engel raises is automobiles.  Within this section he mentions Dr. Greg Gulbransen, who in 2002 ran over and killed his two-year-old son while backing out of his driveway.  Engel also brings up the case with the elderly woman who was burnt by the hot coffee from McDonald’s that she decided to place between her legs.  This chapter showed that while some bring lawsuits, the majority of American’s who are injured by their physical environment choose to not to sue because they blame themselves for the injuries.  Situations such as the McDonald's coffee being too hot and Dr. Gulbransen killing his son have led to changes, but they are changes that most likely could have been accomplished through the legislature and not lawsuits. 
The examples in chapter seven raised the question; can we truly blame the physical environment around us for these injuries or are we better off not litigating and continuing to lump these issues?  For instance, in the case of the McDonald’s coffee, the coffee was too hot for the average consumer, but are they truly to blame when this woman chose to put hot coffee between her legs while in a car.  In the case of the automobile, many Americans learned to drive without backup cameras in their cars, and even with backup cameras people still need to turn their heads because the cameras do not pick up every angle.  In this case, can the doctor blame the accident on the car or is he to blame because his two-year-old son was in the driveway behind the car and he did not see him.
This chapter stood out because these things are such a natural part of our everyday lives and the majority of people never even consider saying that they are the cause of injuries.  Stairs are something that I trip on, on a daily basis, but I have never once thought that there was someone else to blame.  All of these cases have one thing in common lawsuits were brought.  Yet, these suits just seem silly and frivolous because the reason behind the majority of the examples Engel’s mentions are due to the people's own fault.  For instance, McDonald’s coffee was being made at too high a temperature, but the woman also contributed, because from a young age we are taught to be cautious with hot objects; therefore, many would know better to not place the hot cup of coffee between one’s legs.  The lawsuit that the elderly woman brought against St. Patrick's Cathedral seemed frivolous because it was her decision to walk up that particular flight of stairs.  The stairs into the cathedral are steep, however; there are other entrances that all visitors were made aware of.  There were many causes to her injury; she contributed to her own accident by choosing to walk up that flight of stairs; she was older and not steady on her feet; yet, her family allowed her to make that decision rather than insisting that she either have help or use a different entrance.
If I had the ability to reform the U.S. tort system I would set it up similar to New Zealand’s social compensation system regarding lawsuits such as the ones mentioned in chapter seven.  The system would allow those who chose to bring injury that is caused by the environment around them to still recover but not as much as they would have if damages were to be awarded by a jury; due to the fact that juries can be unpredictable in their rewarding of damages.  The American civil litigation system would also be kept in place for cases that warrant a trial, cases where A has injured B and rather than B seeking vengeance, B is able to sue A in order to receive compensation.  By leaving the American system in place there is a hope that others will be deterred from committing the same kind of injury as A.  The mix between the two systems would most likely not be successful because those injured by the environment would complain that they are only receiving a set amount of money and do not have the option to bring a lawsuit, with the hope of receiving more.  The mix between the two would allow everyone to be compensated and would prevent everyone who is harmed from seeking revenge on their own. 
After reading this book I realized that Americans are not as litigation happy as they are made out to be.  The majority of Americans lump their injuries for various reasons, they either blame themselves or they do not know who was the cause of the injury.  There are some lawsuits that are brought that are frivolous and outrageous; these are lawsuits that are seen on the news that lead other countries, as well as Americans, to be misguided as to the number of lawsuits brought in the country each year.  David Engel’s The Myth of the Litigious Society showed that this is not the case.  In a perfect a society there would be a mix between the American litigation system and the New Zealand social compensation.  Issues could arise but ideally this system would still be preventing vigilantism.   

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