The Joys of Being Sued

Frivolous lawsuits are one of the banes of Western corporate life. Lawsuit artists walk through stores looking for puddles to slip in, sue restaurants for the coffee being too hot — even sue people who try to save their lives during disasters.
The lawsuit artists — and the lawyers who serve them — are considered the bottom feeders, the carrion birds of civilized society.
But, like vultures and maggots, they also serve a useful purpose. They have a nose for rotting meat.
In some cases, they go too far, and eat live flesh. In the case of Good Samaritans, for example, there are now laws in many jurisdictions protecting people who make a good faith effort to help others in emergency situations.
But take the example of the $2.7 million lawsuit against McDonald’s alleging that the coffee was too hot. It’s widely considered the poster child of frivolous lawsuits. But the facts of the case – including massive third-degree burns, eight days of hospitalization, and skin grafts that the victim suffered demonstrate that there was actual substance to the case. In addition, McDonald’s produced documents demonstrating over 700 similar complaints. The company also admitted that it maintained coffee temperatures at dangerous levels, higher than other restaurants, despite the fact that it knew that many of its customers would drink the coffee immediately after purchase — or in cars, when buying at drive-throughs.
The final amount of the settlement was eventually reduced a bit on appeal, but the main consequence of the case is that McDonald’s reduced the temperature of its coffee so that it would no longer scald its customers.
One breed of lawsuit artist is the slip-and-fall conman or conwoman. They trawl retail locations looking for wet floors or cracks in cement, then sue the parties responsible.
As a result, the phrase “clean up in aisle six” has become a common refrain for the public announcement systems in supermarkets and department stores around the world.
But here, too, these lawsuits serve a social purpose. For every conman who slips and falls and sues the company for a trumped-up claim, there’s now a store that monitors its floors with a keen eye – and any number of real little old ladies are not slipping and breaking their hips.
When I lived in Moscow ten years ago — again, I’m not commenting about China here — winters were a nightmare for little old ladies. My neighbors were virtually housebound all winter, since all sidewalks and streets were permanently covered with ice. It was common to find open manhole covers, unfenced construction sites — and don’t even get me started on medical malpractice.
The general feeling was that if you fell down a manhole, it was your own fault for not watching where you were going. So people watched where they walked. This meant that you did not want to walk around at night, or while drunk, or even while engrossed in conversation with a friend.
Civil lawsuits, in the long run, protect consumers.
But, these lawsuits, even frivolous ones, can also protect companies.
A lawsuit might expose staffing problems or safety issues or management malpractice.
A frivolous lawsuit is usually easier to deal with — since the case has no actual merits, the lawsuit artists is often willing to settle for a small settlement. But it also exposes problems that could lead to a larger, potentially more significant lawsuit in the future.
For example, an employee who sues over wrongful termination may expose a problem with dispute resolution at a company, and may inspire a firm to include a process for mediation in its employment contracts, and, perhaps, a provision for binding third-party arbitration in case of problems that would otherwise go to court.
Lawsuit artists go after low-hanging fruit — the companies who don’t clean up their wet floors. They’re an early harbinger of worse problems to come — or an early warning bell for companies to clean up their acts.
In other words, if you’re seeing vultures circling overhead, maybe it’s time to get out of the desert and back to civilization.