Themes > Legal English > If it hurts, sue!
If it hurts, sue!

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.

Eager lawyers

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.

The consequences

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 lawyers!


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.

Reading for meaning

When you read an article, you can often guess the words you do not know from the context.

Find words or expressions in the above article which have the following meanings:

a. institute legal procedings
b. money paid to compensate for injury or loss
c. burnt (by hot water)
d. intentionally
e. poor (inferior)
f. a proceeding brought by one person against another
g. gives up
h. protection against claims from clients or patients for damages arising from one's professional actions
i. dangerous
j. an upper limit
k. excessively severe
l. very obvious
m. people who bring a lawsuit

© Linguarama International, Alton UK, 1992 - 2000. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photographic, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of Linguarama International.

You may download any issue of POSTSCRIPT for personal (non-commercial) use and may distribute it to friends and work colleagues provided that the above conditions are extended to all users and that no commercial use is made of the material.