Want to get rich quick? Sue someone


Bill Bryson
Monday 26 July 1999 00:02

I HAVE a friend in Britain, an academic, who was recently approached by lawyers working for an American company to be an expert witness for a case they were handling. They told him they wanted to fly the lead attorney and two assistants to London to meet him.

"Wouldn't it be simpler and cheaper if I flew to New York instead?" my friend suggested.

"Yes," he was told without hesitation, "but this way we can bill the client for the cost of three trips."

And there you have the American legal mind at work.

Now I have no doubt that a large number of American lawyers - well, two anyway - do wonderfully worthwhile things that fully justify charging their clients $150 an hour, which I gather is the going rate here. But the trouble is that there are too many of them. In fact -- and here is a truly sobering statistic - the United States has more lawyers than all the rest of the world put together: almost 800,000 of them, up from an already abundant 260,000 in 1960. We now boast 300 lawyers for every 100,000 citizens. Britain, by contrast, has 82, Japan a mere 11.

And, of course, all those lawyers need work. Most states now allow lawyers to advertise, and many of them most enthusiastically do. You cannot watch TV for half an hour without encountering at least one commercial showing a sincere-looking lawyer saying: "Hi, I'm Vinny Slick of Bent and Oily Law Associates. If you've suffered an injury at work, or been in a vehicular accident, or just feel like having some extra money, come to me and we'll find someone to sue."

Americans, as is well known, will sue at the drop of a hat. In fact, I daresay someone somewhere has sued over a dropped hat, and won $20m for the pain and suffering it caused. There really is a sense that if something goes wrong for whatever reason and you are anywhere in the vicinity, then you ought to collect a pot of money.

This was neatly illustrated a couple of years ago when a chemical plant in Richmond, California, suffered an explosion which spewed fumes over the town. Within hours, 200 lawyers and their representatives had descended on the excited community, handing out business cards and advising people to present themselves at the local hospital. Twenty thousand residents eagerly did so.

News footage of the event makes it look like some kind of open-air party. Of the 20,000 happy, smiling, seemingly very healthy people who lined up for examination at the hospital's emergency room, just 20 were actually admitted. Although the number of proven injuries was slight, 70,000 townspeople - virtually all of them - filed claims. The company agreed to a $180m settlement. Of this, the lawyers got $40m.

Every year over 90 million lawsuits are filed in this extravagantly litigious country - that's one for every two and a half people - and many of these are what might charitably be called ambitious. As I write, two parents in Texas are suing a high school baseball coach for benching their son during a game, claiming humiliation and extreme mental anguish. In Washington state, meanwhile, a man with heart problems is suing the local dairies "because their milk cartons did not warn him about cholesterol". I am sure you read about the woman in California who sued the Walt Disney Company after she and her family were mugged in a car park at Disneyland. A central part of the suit was that her grandchildren suffered shock and trauma when they were taken behind the scenes to be comforted and they saw Disney characters taking off their costumes. The discovery that Mickey Mouse and Goofy were in fact real people inside costumes was apparently too much for the poor tykes.

That case was dismissed, but elsewhere people have won fortunes out of all proportion to any pain or loss they might actually have suffered. Recently there was a much-publicised case in which an executive at a Milwaukee brewery recounted the racy plot of a Seinfeld episode to a female colleague, who took offence and reported him for sexual harassment. The brewery responded by sacking the fellow, and he responded by suing the brewery. I don't know who deserved what - it sounds to me like they all wanted a good spanking - but the upshot is that the sacked executive was awarded $26.6m, roughly 400,000 times his annual salary, by a sympathetic (ie demented) jury.

Allied with the idea that lawsuits are a quick way to a fortune is the interesting and uniquely American notion that no matter what happens, someone else must be responsible. So if, say, you smoke 80 cigarettes a day for 50 years and eventually get cancer, then it must be everyone else's fault but your own, and you sue not only the manufacturer of your cigarettes, but the wholesaler, the retailers, the haulage firm that delivered the cigarettes to the retailer, and so on. One of the most extraordinary features of the American legal system is that it allows plaintiffs to sue people and companies only tangentially connected to the alleged complaint.

Because of the way the system works it is often less expensive for a company or institution to settle out of court than to let the matter proceed to trial. I know a woman who slipped and fell while entering a department store on a rainy day and, to her astonishment, was offered a more or less instant settlement of $2,500 if she would sign a piece of paper agreeing not to sue. She signed.

The cost of all this to society is enormous - several billion dollars a year. New York City alone spends $200m settling "slip and fall" claims - people tripping over kerbs and the like.

According to a recent ABC Television documentary on America's runaway legal system, because of inflated product liability costs consumers pay $500 more than they need to for every car they buy, $100 more for football helmets, and $3,000 more for heart pacemakers. They even pay a little on top (as it were) for haircuts because one or two distressed customers successfully sued their barbers after being given the sort of embarrassing trims that I receive as a matter of routine.

All of which has given me an idea. I am going to go and smoke 80 cigarettes, then slip and fall while drinking high-cholesterol milk and relating the plot of a Seinfeld show to a passing female in the Disneyland car park, and then I'll call Vinny Slick and see if we can strike a deal. I don't expect to settle for less than $2.5bn - and that's before we've even started talking about my latest haircut.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99

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