By EMT McGee
I drive on a highway every single day, as do many other Americans. We’ve probably driven by thousands of billboard advertisements in our lifetime. So many that their existence blends in with the landscape. Especially the ones that depict a car accident victim in a neck brace with 1-800-CAR-CRASH splattered somewhere next to them. Just another ambulance chaser, is usually my thought–but not anymore. David Engel explains through statistics, life experiences, and first hand accounts why the litigation system in the United States is not actually what it is perceived to be. After reading “The Myth of the Litigious Society” my perception of the American tort system has changed because I now have a much more encircling view of what actually occurs.
Upon reflection, my biggest takeaway from reading Engel’s book was my sincere astonishment that I had knowledge of the majority of famous tort claims that he delved in to. From Erin Brockovich’s story to Stella Liebeck’s McDonald’s incident, I had some knowledge of the specific cases. Since I was aware of his examples, I had some hesitation in believing Engel’s theory that lawsuits are not common. However, I quickly came to realize I knew the examples he was using because there isn't an overabundance of tort claims that occur, so the few high-profile ones become famous.
More specifically, though, my mindset on the individuals that don’t bring suit against a wrongdoer–or as Engel would say the lumpers–changed drastically as I neared the end of the book. In the beginning, he was just stating statistics like how “approximately nine out of ten Americans choose to lump rather than to claim” (pg. 22). I will admit that my initial reaction was 90% of this population pool is incompetent for not claiming. However, in chapters three and four, Engel goes into detail about the lifestyle shift that an injured victim has to adjust to.
Growing up playing sports I had my fair share of injuries; between sprained ankles to dislocated fingers I went to the hospital quite often. Each new injury brought a new lifestyle change, thankfully only temporary, but I still had to adjust. Looking back, I was quite miserable and did not want to socialize. My injuries drove my lifestyle. Fortunately, the only person responsible for my sport-related injuries was myself. Now, imagine an individual who was recently injured due to another’s wrongdoing and is in no physical or mental condition to begin a lawsuit. It is quite staggering to think that an individual adjusting to their new lifestyle can make rational decisions about the merits of claiming and legal mobilization (pg. 40).
In chapter four, Engel examines how the mind and body are one. The idea that the mind and body experience and interpret the injury together is unconditionally true. As Engel described the mental effect that can be brought on by a physical injury to the body, I began to understand the life of a lumper. A lumper can be viewed as many different things but what people, including myself, fail to recognize sometimes is that he or she is an individual that just experienced a traumatic event and must cope with the consequences. A broken arm might not seem all that terrible to some people, but to one person who needs that arm to work, cook for their children, and drive a car, a broken arm is a temporary life changing event. Engel allows his readers to understand the aftermath of an injury from the injured person’s perspective.
It was easy to think that a person who lumped was lazy or incompetent, but I failed to put myself in their shoes. Engel does an excellent job of portraying the struggle an injured person faces post injury. The first hand accounts he used throughout the book were extremely helpful. Although Miranda Compton’s feature only consisted of five pages (pg. 148), Engel gave an unblemished account of her storyline about her daughter’s devastating injury. Reading Compton’s struggle about whether to claim or not and her eventual outcome gave me an inside look at the aftermath of an injury. I realized exterior pressures from friends and family, or one’s community, play a major role when someone decides to lump a claim. After Compton went through with the lawsuit and only got $2,000 out of the original $150,000 claim, she explained she felt pressured into it by her ex-husband. Regardless of the amount of money she was awarded, she had grave regrets for following through with the lawsuit and wished she had lumped instead. The lawsuit caused her unneeded stress, and she received social backlash. Compton’s story is only one example of an individual regretting the decision to claim, but how many other people are out there who are in fear of claiming for the same reasons? Culturally, self-sufficiency is favored, whereas claiming can be considered greedy.
Each of Engel’s theories convinced me more that the majority of people are lumpers and not claimers. However, throughout the book I kept questioning why I was so ingrained with the idea that claiming was the obvious answer. It was not until Engel brought up the use of chairs, stairs, and keyboards in chapter seven that I began to understand lumping. Countless Americans are injured from everyday tasks like sitting at their desk typing or walking up the stairs, but they only see the injury as their own fault. The more common of an activity, the less likely it is that an individual will see claiming as a valid response. Tripping up the stairs seems like a simple clumsy injury, but it can have serious effects if the stair architect or engineer did not properly install them. Most Americans (including myself) are not likely to think of a typical situation as a potential claim situation. Engel did an excellent job explaining how everyday Americans interact with claim worthy situations but become lumpers because they did not know a tort occurred or the process to claim would be too much of a hassle.
Dr. Greg Gulbransen chose not to lump and subsequently held a significant role in the dispute resolution system in the United States. After facing the tragedy that involved accidentally driving over his son because of the blind spots in his SUV, Gulbransen started a nonprofit organization in order to universally equip all vehicles with camera technology. Prior to Gulbransen’s efforts, “the tragic deaths and injuries of very young children were considered inherent in the nature of motor vehicles” (pg. 120). Gulbransen chose not only to claim but also to fight for changes. His endeavor was successful, as he was able to get the federal government to support legislation that would require any new models of vehicles sold in the United States to be equipped with rearview cameras. Today, sixteen years after the tragedy involving Dr. Gulbransen’s son, vehicles without rearview cameras are seen as unsafe and defective.
It is interesting to see how the act of claiming can affect American society. According to research by federal regulators, “267 deaths and 15,000 injuries are caused each year by vehicles backing up” (pg. 120). Gulbransen could have followed the majority of victims and lumped, but instead his actions had grave consequences on the civil dispute system in the United States. Now that I’m aware of the effect a single claimant can have on the tort system, it makes me curious about the voluminous amount of lumpers. Before reading Gulbransen’s story I did not realize the outcome that can happen post claim. In response to the statistic that 90% of Americans don’t claim, we need to implement a system that encourages claiming and discourages lumping.
The irony is, before I read Engel’s book I thought there was a plethora of claiming occurring and now, I’m rallying for an even stronger claiming system in the United States. If I were able to wave a magic wand and bring change to the U.S tort system I would. Engel discusses the lack of equal portrayal of injury victims in mass media. He proposes that “if media reporting could be focused more consistently on the most widespread and costly injuries in American society, and if it could identify new risks through investigative journalism and exposes, that in itself would contribute significantly to injury reduction” (pg. 194). I would agree, once again, with Engel’s theory that the lack of awareness only worsens the system and creates no solutions. By bringing awareness to common injuries, more people will choose to claim rather than to lump. A simple solution could be to require the mainstream media to cover more stories on individuals that trip up stairs and decide to claim rather than the tabloid catching stories like Stella Liebeck’s million dollar coffee spill (pg. 121).
Although encouraging the media to actually cover small-scale civil disputes would not cost that much, it would require substantial reasoning to convince them. Another solution that would require more of a substantive effort would be to make class action lawsuits easier and more feasible. When the majority of people hear “class action lawsuit,” there is not typically a positive response. However, if class action lawsuits were more prevalent and American citizens had knowledge of their existence, the amount of claims would increase. Improving the current class action lawsuit process would bring injuries that are usually forgotten and repressed to the forefront of the litigation system, which would raise awareness of claiming. Subsequently, more awareness of claiming would have an adverse effect on the single claimants out there.
After reading Engel’s book, I do believe that there is a significant amount of people who would decide to claim if they had more knowledge of the process or were given more support from the dispute resolution system. Injured individuals are coping with a traumatic experience yet the system expects them to figure out the next proper step. Without any legitimate guidance or precedent in the public eye, the result becomes lumping. Engel’s book significantly changed my perspective on the American tort system. There is a problem with the lack of people that make claims in our society, and we must do something to shift the lumpers to claimers. Increasing awareness and offering procedural information can be our first step in shifting the way the myth of our litigious society. Now, when I drive down the highway and see the repetitive advertisements for tort lawyers, I will question why so many people drive past them and never give them a second thought.