The Myth of The Stella Awards
Since about 2001, a list of several crazy lawsuits has been circulating among the internet as evidence of a civil justice system run amuck with frivolous lawsuits brought by sue-happy ne’er do wells. As we all know, the problem with internet chain mails is that most often the content is simply false. The Stella Awards story describes several lawsuits, none of which have any basis in fact. According to Snopes.com which is a website devoted to debunking urban legends, “All of the entries in the list are fabrications: a search for news stories about each of the cases failed to turn up anything, as did a search for each law case.” Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post confronted the U.S. News & World Report in 2003 after it referenced these cases and noted that Snopes had debunked these stories as pure fabrications.
So called “Tort Reformers” most often rely upon fabricated stories to support their calls for laws that restrict the rights of everyday men, women and children to seek justice against faceless corporations and the insurance industry. The fact is that our system of justice has built in “fail-safes” to provide remedies where a verdict is excessive or the finding of fault against the weight of evidence in the case. This is why most crazy sounding verdicts the public hears bout in newspapers or other media are reversed by either the trial judge in the case or appeals courts later.
The truth about the American system of civil justice is that the contingency fee trial attorney is the only key most everyday American men, women and children have to the courthouse. Without the contingency fee trial lawyer, many of the most egregiously injured and wronged Americans could scarcely afford an hour long consultation with an experienced and qualified lawyer, much less the cost of hiring one to handle a lengthy legal battle. The truth is that contingency fee trial lawyers only make money when they win the case and a jury agrees that the case warrants a substantial award of money damages. Contingency fee trial lawyers not only make no money accepting a frivolous case, they lose substantial amounts of money they invest in trying to win. There is no incentive for a contingency fee trial attorney to undertake the impossible task of proving a case they cannot win during a short trial by a jury of strangers.
Even leaders of conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation have agreed that the contingency fee system works. James Gattuso of The Heritage Foundation wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the contingency fee system ensures access to the civil courts to those who could not otherwise afford access to the civil justice system and that rather than encouraging frivolous lawsuits, the contingency fee system actually screens them out of the system because contingency fee lawyers are de-incentivized to accept weak cases.
In short, the civil justice system in America works. In fact, it is our civil justice system that sets us apart from every other country in the world, even more than our criminal justice system. About the U.S. Constitution’s Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury in civil cases, Thomas Jefferson said, ” I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” More recently, Justice William Rehnquist said in 1979, “The Founders of our nation considered the right of trial by jury in civil cases an important bulwark against tyranny and corruption, a ‘safeguard too precious to be left to the whim of the sovereign’.”
Beginning with the tobacco industry’s efforts decades ago and followed later by the insurance industry and now even the Chamber of Commerce, there have been well oiled, strategically organized and well funded efforts to weaken the rights and abilities of “everyman” to seek justice in civil courts because the courtroom is the only place in society where common everyday Americans are on truly equal footing with the large powerful corporations and industries who should be held accountable for their injuries and losses. Don’t buy into the myth of tort reform by believing everything your read on the internet, in emails, or even in newspapers. If it sounds too crazy to be true, it probably isn’t true. After all, do you really believe that trial lawyers are intellectual wizards who can hypnotize everyday folks in a few days to get large sums of money awarded in frivolous cases? Don’t be duped by big business. Don’t buy into the myths of tort reformers.