America: land o’ lawsuits

The days of merely disagreeing with a fellow citizen have given way to the days of legalized bullying in a tsunami of civil lawsuits.

With potential payouts in the thousands, the lawsuit industry of America costs $251 billion a year. Personal injury law is exploding to the point where 83 per cent of American participants in a 2010 Harris Interactive survey said they felt it was too easy to make frivolous claims.

The latest high-profile frivolous suit comes from none other than Donald Trump, who is suing comedian Bill Maher for $5 million. Maher quipped that if Trump could produce a birth certificate proving he was not fathered by an orangutan, he would donate $5 million to charity. Trump produced the document, and is serious about collecting on the bargain.


America is the land of the free and, according to the American Bar Association, home to 1.2 million lawyers.

As capitalism spurs a culture where shouting matches and fistfights are replaced by lawsuits, petty suits are not limited to the rich and famous – although theirs get the most media attention.

Burden of Proof

Another incentive for frivolous lawsuits may also be the relatively light burden of proof that is required to win.

The majority of civil cases are not determined with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, the evidence need only show that the defendant is more likely than not to be guilty. This can be as low as a 51 per cent likelihood of guilt.

The structure makes winning a civil suit more likely than winning coins at the slot machine, and infinitely more likely than winning the lottery. It’s no wonder 15 million of them are filed every year in the United States.

Though there are lots of legitimate targets for lawsuits – drug companies that hide the dangers of their products, insurance companies that shoot down claims because of trivialities – one has to question the validity of a rich businessman suing a rich comedian for making a joke. Have lawsuits simply become the replacement for slapping someone in the face?

A darker side to this narrative could be the growing income gap in the US – maybe some plaintiffs feel a lawsuit is the only way to get ahead financially.

“Money has become…the currency of human interaction”

A term often used to describe the explosion of civil cases is that America has become “sue-happy”. Where apologies and cards once sufficed in resolving differences, the option of winning  money has tantalized a growing number of plaintiffs.

It’s as though money has successfully evolved from the currency of the economy to the currency of basic human interaction. Instead of hurting someone by telling him how much of a jerk he is, you can hurt him by taking his money.

From the back-and-forth suing between Apple and Samsung to the paternity suits against pre-pubescent pop stars, this new culture of suing each other is playing out nicely across media lines.

As repugnant as it may sound to pick a private fight (with the likes of Bill Maher), solving petty disputes one-on-one may be better than perpetuating the quarter-trillion dollar civil lawsuit free-for-all.

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