In the United States the number of cases where people sue for damages or compensation
for medical malpractice has grown at an alarming rate. This US obsession with litigation
seems motivated by greed rather than the wish for justice.
An eighty year old woman sued MacDonalds take-away for damages after she was scalded
by the coffee. She was awarded $640,000. A woman sued her vet for $1million because
of the emotional stress she suffered when he injured her pet iguana. A man who deliberately
jumped in front of a train in the New York subway sued the transport company and
won $650,000 damages because the train failed to stop.
Thomas Wallace, a black American, claimed that he and his three sons suffered emotional
distress when they came across the word nigger in their computer encyclopedia.
Mr Wallace had typed the word nigger while searching for information on the
Niger River. The computer told him that Joseph Conrad had written a novel in the
19th century called Nigger of the Narcissus, and that Martin Luther King
had once been called a nigger by a white woman when he was 11 years old. Mr Wallace
is now suing the encyclopedia company for $40 million.
A British banker recently lost his job at a Canadian bank based in New York. He
is suing the bank, stating that he suffered mental anguish because of his French
boss's insistence on joking that the English were bad lovers and lousy cooks. He
is claiming $20 million in damages.
There are over 800,000 American lawyers (70% of the world's total number), many
of whom openly encourage such lawsuits. A lawyer often takes on a lawsuit as a sort
of gamble. The lawyer enters an agreement with the client. If the client loses,
the lawyer forfeits the legal fee. If, however, the lawsuit is won, the lawyer takes
up to 50% of the amount awarded.
Of course, the law on which such litigation is based was originally promulgated
to protect the public from, for example, dishonest and irresponsible manufacturers
or incompetent doctors. A highly litigious environment has, however, developed.
Many people have lost their sense of personal responsibility ("if it hurts, sue")
and are ready to blame others for the slightest accident. Others are cynically making
a lot of money from the legal situation. As a practical consequence, professional
indemnity insurance premiums have risen. Certain professions, especially those within
medicine, have become so risky that trainees fear to specialise. And everyone hates
The politicians are at last taking action. Recently the House of Representatives
passed a bill, the Common Sense Product Liability and Legal Reform Act, which places
a ceiling on punitive damages in civil law suits and "pain and suffering" settlements
in medical malpractice suits. There has also been a change in the conditions necessary
to bring product liability cases. Now there must be a "conscious and flagrant" disregard
to consumers' safety. Moreover, such a case must be brought within a time limit
of up to 15 years after the product launch. The bill also includes the "British
rule" which specifies that in some instances unsuccesful litigants should pay the
winners' legal fees. It seems that the legal lottery will soon be over.
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