The myth about frivolous lawsuits–what insurance companies don’t tell you

I have been a personal injury attorney at the law firm Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson for the past 30 years. Insurance companies and their clients have ignored the facts about personal injury litigation and propagate the myth that frivolous claims threaten society. In fact, insurance companies only pay for harm caused by their insured. Claims that have no substance–if they exist–are dismissed by the court or are lost at trial.

I responded to a recent newspaper editorial written under the headline: “Lawyers, spurious lawsuits threaten a potential civic disaster”. Too many newspaper editors have fallen prey to the propaganda campaigns of insurance companies who try to poison the perception of the public–and potential jurors in our community–about the impact of litigation on our society. In fact, our homes, cars, products and lives are safer because personal injury lawyers hold manufacuturers and others accountable for their misconduct.

Attached is my entire letter to the Editor for the Lebanon Reporter:

Dear Editor:

I am compelled to respond to the recent editorial of Stephen Dick under the title “Lawyers, spurious lawsuits a potential civic disaster”. Mr. Dick relies upon a single Supreme Court ruling and the view of Phillip K. Howard, an avowed advisor to huge corporations and executives, to suggest the need for “tort reform”.

The conservative press in general, and Mr. Dick in particular, have bought into the propaganda campaigns of the insurance industry and corporate executives to mislead the general public about personal injury claims. Mr. Dick urges judges “to be bold enough to throw (frivolous) suits out”, as if there are lots of these kinds of cases being filed that somehow threaten “a potential civic disaster”.

But the impression he wants to suggest, that there are, in fact, frivolous claims being filed everywhere, is a fiction created by the insurance industry and corporate executives. It simply isn’t true. That isn’t to say that it never occurs, but for every claim that is deemed “frivolous”, there are millions of “legitimate” claims caused by careless or irresponsible conduct. Self declared “tort reformists” use exaggerated headlines about these rare cases to malign the claims of innocent victims.

Judges are already empowered by state law to dismiss a claim deemed “frivolous”. But in my 30 years as a personal injury attorney, I have never seen a defendant attempt to do so. A real “civic disaster” would happen if our legal system couldn’t hold wrongdoers accountable for their misconduct.

The campaigns that Mr. Dick and Mr. Howard support ignore the effectiveness and purpose of a judicial system that allows injured persons the right to assert a claim for damages caused by another person’s negligence. Not only does it provide the aggrieved person a remedy for the misconduct of another, but the collective results of the system help everyone.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recent annual report states that there has been a 30% decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 30 years. It is no coincidence that improvements in the safety of such products have occurred since the 1970s, when the number of personal injury claims arising from dangerous products began to rise.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the overall number of traffic fatalities on the nation’s highways in 2008 will be the lowest number since 1994. More impressive is that the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled declined to its lowest point in history. Improvements in the design and maintenance of highways and safety design changes in motor vehicles are reactions to claims of persons who were killed or injured as the result of dangerous and defective conditions in vehicles and roads.

Rather than focus on the improvements in our society that trial attorneys have caused, the insurance companies and corporations would lead us to believe that society has an impending civic disaster. They ignore the fact that every claim must survive the scrutiny and common sense of our judges and juries. Meritorious claims for harm caused by another’s negligence will prevail. And just as importantly, meritorious defenses will also prevail!

Corporate executives and insurance companies have the resources and financial incentives to hire political lobbyists and spokespersons like Phillip K. Howard to advance their interests in the legislature and in the conservative press. Trial attorneys are the only spokespersons for injured victims, and our only venue is the judicial system. The system, provided by our Constitution, has served us well for over 200 years. It ultimately protects everyone, victims and alleged wrongdoers, from the misconduct of others.

Please, Mr. Dick, don’t let corporate executives and insurance companies mislead you. We need to protect victims’ rights too.

Paul Kruse