The Frivolous Lawsuit Myth
One of the most troubling things I've encountered since beginning work as a Chicago bike injury attorney is the apprehension many potential clients seem to have about hiring a lawyer to represent them after they've been injured in a crash. The vast majority of my clients are educated, intelligent people with good intentions, but unfortunately, many of them seem to be weary of involving an attorney in their claim against an insurance company. At least at first.
Is my claim frivolous? Will I be expected to lie or exaggerate? Am I really entitled to compensation for pain and suffering? Is my attorney really looking out for me, or instead only for him/herself? Are lawsuits inherently dishonest or frivolous? Will my lawyer lie to me or screw me over? These are the questions that sometimes seem to be running through the minds of some potential clients as they decide what to do about their injuries. They're hurt. It wasn't their fault. Yet the legal process intimidates them, and personal injury lawyers don't exactly have the best reputation. In fact, I've even seen personal injury attorneys refer to colleagues as "ambulance chasers." Apparently sometimes even WE don't like us.
On the one hand, I can understand this. Generally speaking, Americans of all walks of life don't have a great deal of trust in the institutions of our society, and the legal system is no exception. But truth be told, the attitudes many people have about personal injury lawyers and insurance claims have been instilled in them, at least partially, through an aggressive, decades long campaign by the insurance industry designed to exaggerate the problem of so called "frivolous" lawsuits.
One thing potential clients should know right off the bat is that if a reputable personal injury attorney is willing to take on their case and represent them, it is highly unlikely that the claim is in any way frivolous. I, like every other personal injury attorney, work off a contingency basis. This means that my pay comes in the form of a percentage of the amount of money the client recovers in his or her case. If a client doesn't have any actual injuries that can be documented with medical evidence or was in fact responsible for the crash they were involved in, I'm not going to take the case because I probably won't make any money off of it, thus working countless hours for absolutely no pay. Most personal injury attorneys simply can't afford to make that gamble-- if a claim doesn't seem legitimate, then there isn't much incentive for lawyers to try their luck (and spend their own money) in pursuit of a claim that doesn't have the facts to back it up.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Just do the math. Most personal injury claims never go to trial, so my job usually involves negotiating the best possible settlement for my client with either an insurance adjuster or insurance company attorney. These people are professionals who are highly experienced in analyzing claims for damages and poking holes in the arguments of plaintiff's attorneys and their clients. If a claim is in any way "frivolous," the claim will be denied, the client won't get compensated and I won't get paid.
And if a case does end up going to trial, plaintiffs and their attorneys encounter juries who, just like many potential plaintiffs, have been encouraged over the years to be suspicious of personal injury claims, causing average jury verdicts to plummet over the past few decades as a result.
So if plaintiffs attorneys won't take a frivolous case because they won't get paid, and juries and judges are on the lookout for dishonest plaintiffs and bad cases, then why do we have this massive problem with expensive, unnecessary lawsuits in our country? The truth is that... we don't.
For decades, insurance companies have exaggerated the problem of frivolous lawsuits in an effort to bolster profits, and it has been largely successful. Sometimes their campaigns involve misrepresenting the facts about specific cases in order to make them seem like examples of Plaintiffs gone wild, while other times the insurance companies go right to the source, lobbying members of state legislatures to put caps on lawsuit damages and create other obstacles to make recovering from insurance companies more difficult and less economically feasible for plaintiffs and their attorneys. The insurance companies involve conservative grassroots organizations in their quest for "tort reform," and fill the airwaves with scare tactics about rising premiums and abusive plaintiffs attorneys.
Each year in the United States, 1 out of every 6 Americans sustains an injury serious enough to cause them some kind of economic loss, but only 10% of them ever make any kind of insurance claim related to their injury, and only 2% of those ever actually file a related lawsuit. How many of that small portion do you think are frivolous? And how substantially do you suppose these lawsuits actually affect insurance premiums?
The truth is that auto and medical insurance has never been more profitable. Lawsuits account for only a small portion of insurance costs, and premiums, like many things in today's economy, depend much more on the whims of the stock market and investment decisions of insurance companies than they do on plaintiffs collecting big pay days on bad claims.
Plaintiffs worry about the claims and/or litigation process, but other plaintiffs aren't the problem. Instead, its the insurance companies who make more money every time a Plaintiff doesn't get the compensation they are entitled to. Check here or here for a lot more information on these issues, and stay tuned for my next post on why injured cyclists in Chicago need a personal injury attorney.