Opinion: ‘Frivolous’ lawsuits and Tort Law

Average American citizens have little power when they have a complaint against the corporate giants that provide many of our goods and services. However, they have one weapon, which seems to be used quite frequently in recent years. That is civil court, where tort lawsuits are heard. But, often, these lawsuits are seen as being frivolous.


The lawsuits that make the news and remain in our memory are usually ones in which large sums of money have been awarded to the plaintiff. Let’s take a hypothetical case. Assume that a woman, let’s call her M.O., has contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her male date while they were in a small automobile that was insured by a major company. The male did not disclose the fact that he had an STD, so M.O. claims that there was “wrong-doing” involved in the circumstances that caused her to catch the disease. What should she do?


Frivolous lawsuits


Remember when a woman, let’s call her S.L., sued McDonald’s because she was served coffee that was too hot? The jury’s decision was to give her $200,000. However, she was only awarded $100,000 by the court. Sounds pretty frivolous, but S.L. required skin grafts to the part of her body where she spilled the coffee, and she spent eight days in the hospital. The court also charged McDonald’s punitive damages of $2.7 million.


Then there was the suicidal young woman, let’s call her S.K., who sued the New York City Transit Authority for causing her “extreme suffering.” This story began a little more than 20 years ago when S.K. climbed down from a subway platform and lay across the tracks, hoping that the train would run over and kill her.


However, six minutes before the train arrived, a bystander phoned 9-1-1 and reported the situation. The information was transmitted to the conductor of the train, and he claimed that he eased the train to the required 10-miles-per-hour protocol when there is danger ahead. When the train hit her, S.K. suffered the amputation of one hand and multiple fractures to her face, head, arms, and legs. Because an expert witness said that it was impossible for the train to be going only 10 mph, S.K. was awarded $14 million by the jury. But, after appeals and a finding that S.K. was partially responsible, she received a mere $5 million.


The list of these “frivolous” lawsuits goes on and on. There’s the construction worker who stuck his hand through the hole in a bathroom door where a doorknob should have been. He lost a thumb, but gained $200,000 for medical expenses, $750,000 for his wife (There must be an interesting untold story there.), and $2 million for his pain and suffering.


Or, how about J.C. whose nephew hugged her too hard on his eighth birthday, causing serious damage to her “fragile” body. Or, the contractor who was using explosive material in an enclosed place and was injured when the explosive — you guessed it — exploded.


‘Frivolous’ lawsuit and GEICO


The hypothetical case that I laid out at the beginning of this column was not actually hypothetical. The circumstances are true. In 2017, M.O. (a woman) had unprotected sex with M.B. (a man who knew he had a sexually transmitted disease) in a 2014 Hyundai Genesis, a small sedan. As a result, M.O. became infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV. She claimed that M.B. was negligent in not telling her about his health problem. She felt that she was entitled to compensation.


When one goes to a lawyer with this type of complaint, the lawyer will start looking for “deep pockets,” that is, someone or some organization with a lot of money. So, M.O. filed suit against GEICO, the deep-pocket insurer of the Hyundai. GEICO’s initial response was that its auto coverage didn’t apply because the “damages claimed did not arise out of normal use of the vehicle.”


After years of haggling, in 2021 M.O. and M.B. signed an arbitration agreement to settle their dispute for $5.2 million, agreeing that the sum “would fairly and justly compensate” her. Then, M.O. went to circuit court in Missouri, had her case presented, and won a decision.


Naturally, GEICO appealed to a higher state court. Writing for NPR, Bill Chappell states, “The insurance giant said it hadn’t been given a chance to defend itself, violating its constitutional rights to due process and access to the courts.” The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed, and M.O. offered to settle at that point for $1 million.


But GEICO is now taking the case to federal court and suing both M.O. and M.B. claiming that the car owner’s coverage should be dismissed because they are barred by a number of legal doctrines, including fraud, collusion, illegality, and “unclean hands.” Although M.O. has already had three victories in Missouri, she and M.B. will now have to endure a jury trial in Kansas City in October. My guess is that the original $5.2 million is back on the table.


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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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