Many people who are considering a personal injury case are hesitant to file a lawsuit or even consult with a Northern New Jersey personal injury lawyer. The reasons range from concerns about cost to feeling that the time spent won’t be worth it. In fact, even some of our clients at Buttafuoco & Associates worry that their lawsuits could be thrown out for being seen as frivolous, when this is seldom if ever the case. In this article, I’ll cover what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and what happens if you attempt to file one.
Definition of a Frivolous Lawsuit
While we hear the term frequently, it’s important to first define what exactly a frivolous lawsuit is. A lawsuit that is termed frivolous is often what is known as a “bad faith claim.” This is when a legal action is taken to harass, delay, or embarrass the other party. In the case of a personal injury lawsuit, this would mean that the plaintiff (the injured party) would be suing for reasons other than recovering damages that were a result of their injuries.
The defendant could, for example, argue that the plaintiff was suing out of malice or simply to collect a big check over a minor injury. However, our personal injury lawyers serving Northern New Jersey find that this is much less common than many of our clients believe.
Misunderstanding Frivolous Lawsuits: Liebeck v. McDonald’s
Perhaps the most famous example of a frivolous lawsuit is the 1992 case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s, in which Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s over the burns sustained from spilling their hot coffee in her lap. The broad narrative that circulated in the media at the time was that Ms. Liebeck sued McDonald’s over a minor accident that was all her fault, just to collect a big paycheck. She became the prime example of what the general public saw as frivolous and underhanded use of the legal system to try and cash in. She was the subject of ridicule of derisive editorials, news reports, and late-night monologues, but actually these portrayals either eliminated key context or were factually incorrect.
In 2013, the New York Times published a retrospective on Liebeck v. McDonald’s that sheds light on the issue. For example, while many of the reports describe the burns as minor, the burns were in fact severe, and required extensive skin grafts. Other reports described Ms. Liebeck as negligent, driving with the coffee between her legs; this is false, as she was in a parked car in the passenger seat at the time the spill occurred. Finally, one of the biggest fixations was the amount awarded by the jury: $2.7 million in damages. At the conclusion of the case, the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in damages to cover medical expenses (finding her 20% responsible, and McDonald’s 80% responsible for her injuries); the $2.7 million in punitive damages the jury recommended was reduced by the judge to $640,000. Punitive damages are only awarded when the party that caused injury did something especially reprehensible–in this case, McDonald’s coffee was kept at an incredibly dangerous temperature.
Will my Lawsuit be Considered Frivolous?
Liebeck v. McDonald’s became a rallying cry for legal reform and an example of an out-of-control legal system, where anyone can sue for even minor injuries just to get a big paycheck. But the public shaming of seeking legal recourse for personal injuries is tragic, as it keeps many individuals from bringing their cases forward. While individuals should of course take responsibility for their actions, our Northern New Jersey personal injury attorneys see all too often that big corporations shirk responsibility when it comes to taking ownership of their own negligence.
Naturally, many of our clients at Buttafuoco & Associates worry that their lawsuit will be considered frivolous. Many defendants in personal injury cases will argue that the plaintiff is making baseless or frivolous claims in an attempt to avoid paying the compensation. This is a common legal tactic, but do not be intimidated. You deserve compensation for your injuries.
We recommend seeking the expertise of a qualified personal injury attorney in Northern New Jersey. They will be able to argue the specifics of your case and make substantive arguments to rebut the defendants’ attempt to have the case dismissed.
Call us today at 1-800-NOW-HURT for a free consultation.