What the ""pant rant"" on talk radio misses about lawsuits
By RICHARD M. ALDERMAN
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Every so often, our legal system coughs up an attention-getting case that provides more grist for talk-show hosts calling for changes in our civil justice system. The latest example is the now-infamous lawsuit filed by an administrative law judge who sued a dry cleaners in Washington, D.C., for $54 million in damages over a pair of missing pants.
Was the lawsuit frivolous? Absolutely! And should it serve as a ""poster child"" for a flawed legal system ravaged by greedy trial lawyers? Certainly not and here's why.It's said that someone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. The adage certainly proved true in this case, where Roy L. Pearson served as his own attorney and sought to punish his dry cleaners for losing his ""favorite pair of pants."" Not surprisingly, the judge ended Pearson's frivolity by tossing the case and could soon impose significant penalties for filing such a lawsuit. These outcomes should not come as a shock, because it's a fact that frivolous lawsuits are seldom won, and our courts are disposed to throw the book at people who file them.
Contrary to the critics of our civil justice system and proponents of aggressive ""tort reform,"" Pearson's case actually proves the efficiency of our court system, which is properly regarded as one of the best in the world. And our lawyers are the people who make it work. If Pearson's lawsuit proves anything, it shows that some lawyers are not as competent as others. But calling for the elimination of ""trial"" lawyers and lawsuits because of a case involving a missing pair of pants is like banning all apples because of a single worm.
There's another side of our court system that seldom gets reported and never makes it to late night comedy or radio talk shows. Each year, thousands of legitimate lawsuits are filed by injured plaintiffs who are compensated for injuries caused by professional incompetence or unsafe products.Tort reformers want to ban most, if not all, of these lawsuits and they claim that eliminating them would translate into lower prices for the consumer. The reasoning suggests that without the penalties associated with launching an unsafe drug, pharmaceutical companies would enjoy larger profits and be able to manufacture cheaper aspirin. The problem with this flawed approach is that it has no end. Without lawyers, homebuilders could build less expensive homes and not worry about being sued due to defects in craftsmanship. The price of a pack of cigarettes would decline because companies would not be held accountable for the proven medical costs associated with smoking. And our stores would be stocked with an endless supply of cheap toys because companies could eliminate ""safety"" from their list of priorities.
Regardless of how the reformers try to spin it, lawyers play an essential role not only in our system of justice, but also in our quality of life. It falls to lawyers to ensure that our laws are properly followed, and to protect people who do not have the power or resources to protect themselves. Our civil justice system is the mechanism that ensures that the products we buy are safe, that services we receive are performed competently and that promises made by businesses are binding (but not to the extent of Pearson demanding that his dry cleaners pay $54 million to back up a promise of ""Satisfaction Guaranteed."" ) Lawsuits brought by people represented by lawyers are the means by which we weed out the incompetent, the unsafe and the careless.
Even more significantly, lawsuits are the means by which those who are injured as a result of someone else's incompetence or carelessness are compensated. Not every lawsuit is justified, not every verdict is legitimate and not every lawyer is perfect. Lawyers, like people in any other profession, make mistakes, and some lawyers file frivolous lawsuits. But our system works because judges and juries are usually smart enough to recognize these lawsuits for what they are, and they not only find for the defendant, but they also sanction the people responsible for bringing the case.
Instead of trying to stop lawsuits and vilify lawyers, we should applaud them, and take pride in the American justice system. If there's a better system in the world, I'm simply not aware of it.
Richard M. Alderman is associate dean for academic affairs and director, Center for Consumer Law at the University of Houston Law Center.