Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2005 / 22 Shevat, 5765
Hardly the whole truth: Legal myths The tales would be harmless, except that they're the backdrop for a very real push for tort reform
Have you heard about the guy who injured himself while using his lawn mower
as a hedge clipper, and then won $500,000 in a lawsuit against the lawn
mower company? How about the woman who threw a soft drink at her boyfriend,
slipped on the wet floor, and then won $100,000 in a lawsuit against the
restaurant? These are only two of the common examples of lawsuit abuses that
are fueling the call for "litigation reform." They are also completely
untrue part of a growing collection of legal mythologies that are
appearing widely in the national media.
Image is everything in tort reform, such as President Bush's visit earlier
this month to a "judicial hellhole" in Illinois where tort cases supposedly
flourish. He has made tort reform a priority of his second term and is
expected to repeat these calls in his State of the Union address Wednesday.
It is all part of a well-funded campaign to limit damages against companies
and physicians across the country.
Horror stories offered by industry groups play to a weakness in the media
for "you-are-not-going-to-believe-this" stories. Of course, it is not
surprising that the stories are unbelievable because many never occurred.
Take the ubiquitous hedge-clipper man story. It has appeared in print, on TV
programs, in law school classrooms and in political speeches for decades.
Former vice president Dan Quayle used it in his call for reform (though he
reportedly referred to the man cutting his hair with a lawn mower). In
reality, the story originated in an ad campaign by the insurance firm Crum &
Forester, which later admitted that it knew of no such case. Yet, proving
that facts should never stand in the way of a good story, it remains perhaps
the most cited example of abuse the best $500,000 that the insurance
industry never paid.
Legal legends can be irresistible, even for the most respected newspapers,
magazines and networks.
U.S. News & World Report owner Mort Zuckerman used the story of the soft
drink lady in Pennsylvania in an article denouncing lawsuit abuse. He is not
alone. The tale of Amber Carlson and her soda has appeared in countless
television and print sources. Zuckerman also cited the case of a woman who
knocked her teeth out while sneaking through a nightclub's restroom window
to avoid paying a $3.50 cover charge and then won $12,000 from a jury. It
is also false.
Both stories have been attributed to the Stella Awards, an annual listing of
loony lawsuits. But the Stella Web site points out that they both are
complete fabrications. Yet they continue to appear in print and on the
Other examples of fabricated "true cases of lawsuit abuse":
MERELY LEGAL LEGENDS
Legal legends fit the stereotype of litigation so well that their falsity
becomes secondary. Of course, law is not alone in such fabrications.
Consider my favorite story about Pia Zadora's dismal performance as the lead
in The Diary of Anne Frank . Zadora was so bad that, during the scene where
Nazis break into the house screaming, "Where is Anne Frank?" audience
members screamed, "She's in the attic!" It is a brilliant story, but I was
crushed to learn recently that it is also completely untrue: Zadora has
never played Anne Frank, and there is no such scene in the play.
I loved the Zadora story for the same reason people such as Zuckerman loved the fabricated lawsuit stories: They capture a critical idea with an element of humor or absurdity. There is, however, a great difference between using urban legends to dish on some actress and using them to make massive changes in the law. So, as we begin this latest debate over tort reform, one small piece of advice: If you hear about a case that is almost too good to be true, it probably isn't.
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