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urban legends about lawsuits

Listicles and award contests from around the blawgosphere: Popehat on censorious clowns, Legal Ethics Forum, Trask on class action cases and articles, White Collar Crime Law Prof, Heritage on worst federal regs, Greenfield on best criminal law blawg post (and winner), Faces of Lawsuit Abuse (Chamber) on most ridiculous lawsuits, Balko on worst prosecutor (and finalists).

P.S. From The Week, “8 craziest lawsuits of 2011.” This in turn prompted a NYC personal injury attorney named David Waterbury, taking up valuable real estate at Eric Turkewitz’s, to write a counter-article saying the cases weren’t so bad, which involved me in the comments section after I observed Waterbury spreading the trial lawyer-favored line that the “Kara Walton” series of bogus lawsuit stories was a purposeful political fabrication.

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The venerable British newspaper — at least someone there in charge of selecting pictures and captions — seems to have fallen for an old bit of fiction about an insurance customer who supposedly tried to collect on the loss of his cigars via fire, as an example of “odd American lawsuits.” One wonders why papers fall back on hoary email legends when they could have readily found hundreds upon hundreds of genuine examples of odd American lawsuits right here.

Incidentally, the reader who makes it through the underlying opinion piece (by Neil Rose) does eventually learn that the cigar fable is one of a class of stories “most of [which] are apocryphal or didn’t get anywhere, such as the case against the dry cleaners.” This is not really up to snuff as a way of warning readers off the cigar tale, and it’s grossly misleading as a description of the Roy Pearson dry-cleaners pants suit, which Pearson kept going for years at a very real and serious cost to his targets, the Chung family. Much of the point of the Neil Rose article seems to be to assure British readers that the American way of litigation may be safely emulated, since its costs are not really so bad. If that’s the argument, shouldn’t the piece convey a fairer picture of those costs?

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October 10 roundup

by Walter Olson on October 10, 2009

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“Hot coffee is back!”

by Ted Frank on September 4, 2009

In an op-ed in the Examiner last week, I express curiosity why the trial bar continues to insist that the infamous McDonald’s coffee case came out correctly decided, to the point that trial lawyer blogs express excitement that a documentary is going to be made about the subject. Of course, if the movie just parrots the urban legends trial lawyers have spread about the case, that would be something else—the fact that the filmmaker was fundraising at the AAJ convention but hasn’t shown her face around any of the tort reform conventions suggests a certain direction about the film.

Speaking of McDonald’s, I’ll be in the Bay Area next week at a couple of law schools giving a presentation called “The Law of McDonald’s: Hot Coffee, Obesity, and Prank Phone Calls” : Golden Gate University Law School on September 10, and UC-Davis on September 11. I’ll also be at UC-Berkeley Law on September 8, and Santa Clara University Law on September 9 talking more generally about tort reform and patent reform specifically.

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February 1 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 1, 2009

  • A “retired Reserve captain is threatening to sue her local California school board if the board’s members do not address her by her military title” [Navy Times, Popehat]
  • Members revolt at Florida bar’s selling their email addresses to marketers; general counsel of bar suggests they maintain multiple email addresses [Daily Business Review]
  • “Panel Upholds $17M Attorney Fee Award, Cites Bad-Faith Patent Litigation by Drug Companies” [NLJ; fees awarded to Takeda Chemical Industries against Mylan Laboratories and Alphapharm Pty. Ltd.]
  • Much of what you think you know about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is wrong [Stuart Taylor, Jr./National Journal; Point of Law, more]
  • Not only prejudicial, but a whiskery urban legend to boot: fictional “Winnebago tale” (man thinks cruise control function will drive RV for him, sues after crash) makes its way into an Australian lawyer’s courtroom argument [Rees v. Bailey Aluminium Products]
  • Posner was scathing about the class action lawyers’ conflicts of interest in the Mirfasihi v. Fleet Mortgage Co. case, but Max Kennerly thinks the judge got the case wrong [Litigation and Trial, earlier]
  • Fight erupts over fee split in Blue Cross eating-disorder class action settlement [NJLJ, earlier]
  • “Many attorneys from both parties also marvel at the sheer number of lawyers Obama has picked so far” in staffing White House [Washington Post]

Volokh contributor Paul Cassell is momentarily taken in by a whiskery email hoax, and the usual comments uproar ensues. Among ways of avoiding future embarrassment: check Snopes.com, Google key phrases of the suspect material, or just be a regular reader of Overlawyered.

Public Citizen wrote a report about New York medical malpractice that said:

Physicians who made three or more malpractice payments between 1990 and 2006 – accounting for no more than 4 percent of New York’s doctors – were responsible for nearly half (49.6 percent) of medical malpractice dollars paid out on behalf of doctors in the time period.

This is technically true, but wildly misleading; we previously refuted this precise statistic as a natural statistical consequence of any randomly distributed set of payouts–and given that doctors in high-risk professions such as neurosurgery or ob/gyn are far more likely to be sued than dermatologists or gerontologists, the random concentration effect is going to be even more pronounced, so the Public Citizen statistic is meaningless without a showing of speciality-adjusted correlation between time periods–something no study has ever found.

But note how blogger Eric Turkewitz writes an op-ed in a small-town New York newspaper that isn’t even satisfied with simply misleading the public, and says something that is out-and-out false:

4 percent of the state’s doctors contribut[e] to half of the malpractice suits [emphasis added]

Not remotely true. “Nearly half of payments” has been turned into “half of malpractice suits.” Justinian Lane, who knows or should know that the latter statistic isn’t true, because his blog posted about the original statistic, then repeats the lie either thoughtlessly or deliberately:

Maybe doctors should discipline the four percent of doctors that make up half of all malpractice claims.

Will either of them retract the false claim with the same fanfare that they made it? Stay tuned. (They certainly won’t explain that there’s nothing damning about the accurate statistic–though I have been refuting this for over three years, Public Citizen and trial lawyers and their fans continue to regurgitate the data as if it means something.)

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Kudos to John Cole, who evaluated the evidence and withdrew his endorsement of the LA Times story.

One of his commenters protests: “I’ve certainly heard [the Winnebago case] presented as true.” Well, no doubt. That’s the nature of urban legends. The point is that the Winnebago story isn’t a motivating force behind tort reform. The major tort reform advocates aren’t using the Winnebago story (and, in fact, have done much to refute it). Policymakers aren’t enacting tort reform in response to the Winnebago story.

In contrast, what about urban legends that support the litigation lobby? For example, how about the myth that the Ford Pinto was unusually dangerous and the related myth that Ford valued a human life at $200,000 in deciding not to make a design change? It’s a thirty-year-old tale, trumpeted by Mother Jones magazine and the mainstream media, repeated endlessly (including by Ralph Nader and in a talk I heard by Jonathan Turley, quoted in the LA Times story), used in law school textbooks—but it’s utterly false. Unlike the Winnebago story, a google search for “ford +pinto +lawsuit” turns up no refutations on the front page (though maybe this new page will turn up in the future). Rather, one gets such links as a Daily Kos poster using the Ford Pinto case to argue against class action jurisdictional reform, even though the latter has nothing to do with the former. These things are perhaps impossible to measure, but how can anyone possibly think that the false Winnebago story has had more of an impact on the tort reform debate than the false Ford Pinto story? Where’s Myron Levin on this one?

Reader Gerald Affeldt writes:

I first heard a version of the “Winnebago cruise control” story while I was in the Navy stationed at Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. in 1977. And I’ve heard different versions of it over the years.

The earliest version I heard, as well as a number of later versions, had an ethnic angle. At the time, the U.S. Navy was training pilots for the Shah of Iran, and what with language and customs difference, the trainees weren’t considered technically acute. So the first version of the story I heard was of a supposed Iranian driver. Over the years versions I heard involved a number of other ethnic groups. Just plug in who you wanted.

In the first version I heard, the vehicle was a conversion van. Bed in the back, couple of captain chairs and large mural on the side. Didn’t start hearing motorhome versions till the 90′s. So I guess it’s plug in the popular large vehicle of the time.

In the early versions, the point of the story was just that the driver was too dumb to know cruise control wasn’t the same as an autopilot. I never heard of a lawyer being involved until a few years ago. Guess the story’s age was showing and it needed spicing up.

Most people telling it thought it was true. A friend had seen it in a paper, etc. I guess the whole story works because of the number of stupid people in the world.

For those who came in late, the L.A. Times on Sunday printed a prominent piece on the Winnebago and other “Stella Award” tall tales, which it suggested were “fabrications” spread by the tort reform movement (see Ted’s and my take on the story, as well as our four-year-old debunking of the tales themselves with credit to Snopes). Regarding Mr. Affeldt’s recollections, a few observations:

* You’d think before running an article suggesting that the tales’ wide circulation over the Net reflects a campaign of purposeful disinformation, L.A. Times reporter Myron Levin might have done a little digging into the origins of the tales to find out things like where and when the earliest sightings occur. But there’s scant sign that he did.

* As a visit to the generally excellent urban-legends site Snopes.com will make clear, it’s typical of garden-variety urban legends — the kind whose circulation reflects mere credulity on the part of reader/forwarders, as opposed to a conscious plot to hoodwink the public — that they are older than the tale-tellers realize them to be, and have gone through mutations reflecting what in musicology would be called the folk process.

* To be sure, Mr. Affeldt’s recollections do not conclusively refute the ATLA/L.A. Times thesis that the Winnebago and similar tales have been purposely fabricated. After all, even if there were already an urban legend in wide circulation about a clueless driver’s mistaking cruise control for autopilot, it’s conceivable that the plotters came up with the sly stroke of inserting a lawsuit into the narrative as part of their unceasing efforts to sap public confidence in the U.S. legal system. Of course, it bears repeating that ATLA-’n'-L.A.T. have offered zero evidence of any such thing happening.

* One other thing missing from the L.A. Times account: any showing that the lawsuit-reform groups mentioned, such as ATRA and Common Good, or any similarly prominent group, have in fact circulated the Winnebago/Stella Award stories at all. Credulity being part of the human condition, of course, there are no doubt instances where the newsletter editor of the East Kankakee Citizens for Lawsuit Reform was taken in by a Stella email from his Aunt Fran and passed it along. That the L.A. Times piece does not adduce even one instance of serious backing from such groups should have raised a flag about the quote from Prof. Turley claiming that such stories have been devised with “skill” for purposes of “influencing policy”.

* Thanks to Patterico, Gail Heriot and Southern California Law Blog for linking to our earlier discussion. Among some bloggers of an opposite persuasion, the L.A. Times piece seems to have come as a confirmation of their own dearly held preconceptions on the subject, as with Ezra Klein, John Cole, and Mr. Furious, to some of whose comments sections Ted has paid a visit.

A few further thoughts on the absurdly one-sided Los Angeles Times piece that Ted nails below:

To me, the most outrageous moment in the piece comes early, when GWU lawprof Jonathan Turley is quoted saying of stories like the bogus “Winnebago cruise control” tale: “The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill,” that skill being aimed at “influencing policy”. Turley thus clearly implies that the silly Winnebago story, or the list of supposed “Stella Awards”, or both, were purposely fabricated by sinister if unknown persons in order to influence policy debates, as opposed to, say, originally being someone’s idea of satire and then being passed along by people who wrongly believed them genuine. LAT reporter Myron Levin permits this very serious charge of deliberate fabrication to hang in the air unexamined and unanswered, which does much to set the tone of his piece.

Yet Prof. Turley, a figure much quoted in the press and frequently on camera, offers precisely zero evidence to back up his serious charge that someone deliberately made up the Winnebago/Stella stories and passed them off as real in hopes of influencing policy. Okay, Prof. Turley, either document that charge, or retract it — or else face a very reasonable suspicion that you yourself are willing to fabricate serious charges for which you lack any evidence.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America for months has been pushing the theme that the L.A. Times ran with today and it, too, offers not the slightest evidence for its claim that someone purposely fabricated the Winnebago/Stella stories to influence policy debates. ATLA’s floating of that theme (“Updated
February 2005″) can be found here (claiming stories are “designed [emphasis added] to perpetuate the myth that there is a ‘lawsuit crisis’ in America … clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans’ confidence in our legal system,” etc., etc.) Curiously, for an article that raises concerns about supposed attempts by well-organized groups to influence press coverage, the LAT story never mentions ATLA at all, merely alluding vaguely to trial lawyers in a place or two.

Much of this is of course old news to readers of Overlawyered, which four years ago printed an extensive debunking of the bogus stories that the L.A. Times says legal reformers are eager to circulate. We know through referrer traffic that large numbers of web users continue to land on our entry by searching on strings such as “winnebago + cruise control + lawsuit” (& welcome Patterico, Gail Heriot, Southern California Law Blog readers).

The Los Angeles Times begins a series on “tall tales of outrageous jury awards.” The Times mentions in particular the “Winnebago cruise control lawsuit” urban legend, and suggests the tort reform movement is based on false tales like that one. One problem with their theory: Google the Winnebago lawsuit, and you’ll find that the only people vast majority of the leading sites* mentioning that entertaining (but false) story are… people pointing out that it is an urban legend. Jonathan Turley has done more to spread the story through his USA Today article insulting the tort-reform movement than anyone else. There are thousands of true tales of lawsuits on Overlawyered.com equally ludicrous, without the need to resort to the Winnebago story. It’s the litigation lobby that has made the most out of the Winnebago story, because by focusing on the occasional made-up tale, they can avoid addressing the real stories of abuse.

But you wouldn’t know it from the appallingly one-sided Los Angeles Times story. The reporter interviews Jonathan Turley, Joanne Doroshow of the trial-lawyer-friendly Center for Justice & Democracy, and tort reform opponent Theodore Eisenberg of Cornell, before giving Victor Schwartz a sentence at the end. The newspaper even cites the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit as a legitimate result by uncritically repeating the standard ATLA characterization of the litigation. “‘The irony about the McDonald’s case is that it actually, in my view, was a meaningful and worthy lawsuit,’ George Washington University’s Turley said. Yet advocates and pundits have ‘made it synonymous with court abuse.’” (Perhaps because it is court abuse. At least fourteen out of fifteen courts who have heard identical coffee-spill cases have disagreed with Turley.) (Myron Levin, Aug. 14).

[Aug. 17 update: Since I posted this, Google reshuffled its rankings, so now we have the self-referential problem that many of the leading Winnebago lawsuit sites are now referring to this page or the LA Times article. In addition, a couple of pages uncritically repeating the glurge have snuck their way into the top thirty, so it's more accurate to say that anyone looking up the story on the Internet, where the lawsuit story is supposedly "pervasive," can't help but discover that it's false. Furthermore, the point remains that (1) no serious tort-reform organization is pushing this story (except to refute it, as Overlawyered did four years ago); (2) the Winnebago story is not "widely accepted," because one has to search through thousands of articles and opinion pieces to find a handful of columnists who made a quickly-retracted claim; (3) the LA Times ignores far more pervasive urban legends that are used to argue against tort reform; and (4) the LA Times is guilty of spreading a one-sided and misleading account of the McDonald's coffee lawsuit. Other discussion: Aug. 14, Aug. 15, Aug. 16.]

The “Winnebago cruise control” litigation urban legend (see here and here) has claimed its latest victim in the person of syndicated columnist and George Mason U. economist Walter Williams (“Some things I wonder about”, TownHall, Dec. 31, see final item). Now, in a follow-up column (“An urban legend”, Jan. 7), Williams generously points readers to this site as a source of many real-life stories little less outrageous than the fictitious Winnebago story. To find details on each story, follow the links: Minn. hockey fan served too much alcohol; Ohio carpet installers ignore warning label; Indiana robber sues convenience store clerk who shot him as he fled holdup scene; boozy Galveston ramp roll-off; and the Stella Liebeck hot coffee spill case (we think, however, that it may have been our colleague Ted Frank, rather than Prof. David (not Richard!) Bernstein, who contributed the point about clothing). For more such cases, see our personal responsibility archives, older and newer series. We wonder how many readers directed Williams’s attention to the falsity of the other, unrelated urban legend that was showcased in his Dec. 31 column, namely his use of bogus (and long-since-refuted) numbers on life expectancy for gays. We could have helped him out on that one, too.

Lawsuit urban legends

by Walter Olson on June 14, 2003

The following advisory originally appeared Aug. 27, 2001 on Overlawyered in slightly different form. It is reprinted here because it is among the information most often requested by visitors to the site.

You’ve probably seen it in your inbox: a fast-circulating email, often labeled “Stella Awards”, which lists six awful-sounding damage awards (to a hubcap thief injured when the car drives off, a burglar trapped in a house who had to eat dog food, etc.). Circumstantial details such as dates, names, and places make the cases sound more real, but all signs indicate that the list is fictitious from beginning to end, reports the urban-legends site Snopes.com (Barbara Mikkelson, “Inboxer rebellion: tortuous torts“). Snopes also has posted detailed discussions of two of the other urban legends we get sent often, the “contraceptive jelly” yarn, which originated with a tabloid (“A woman sued a pharmacy from which she bought contraceptive jelly because she became pregnant even after eating the jelly (with toast).” — “Jelly babied“) and the cigar-arson fable (“A cigar aficionado insures his stogies against fire, then tries to collect from his insurance company after he smokes them.” — “Cigarson“). And the story about the man setting the cruise control in his new Winnebago recreational vehicle, leaving the driver’s seat, and then suing the company after the resulting accident? That’s an urban legend too. What we wonder is, why would people want to compile lists of made-up legal bizarreries when they can find a vast stockpile of all-too-real ones just by visiting this website [and in particular its personal responsibility archives, older and newer series]?

NAMES IN STORIES: The never-happened stories include tales about “Kathleen Robertson of Austin Texas” (trips on her toddler in furniture store); “Carl Truman of Los Angeles” (hubcap theft) “Terrence Dickson of Bristol Pennsylvania” (trapped in house), “Jerry Williams of Little Rock Arkansas” (bit by dog after shooting it with pellet gun), “Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania” (slips on drink she threw), and “Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware” (breaks teeth while sneaking through window into club). All these incidents, to repeat, appear to be completely fictitious and unrelated to any actual persons with these names.

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