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Frivolous Lawsuits and Caps on Jury Verdicts

Frivolous Lawsuits and Caps on Jury Verdicts

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“Frivolous lawsuits” and “caps on jury verdicts” are phrases that the insurance lobby likes to beat into psyche of the public.  It is their drumbeat.  They promise that if we only would adopt more and more measures to get rid of these frivolous claims and control these runaway juries, all of our health care problems – and particularly the skyrocketing costs of health care – will resolve.

Should we just accept this argument without analysis?  Is there real merit to this claim, or is it inherently frivolous in itself?

A frivolous lawsuit is defined as a “legal claim or defense presented even though the party or the party’s legal counsel had reason to know that the claim or defense was manifestly insufficient or futile, that is to say, had no legal merit.”

Does the insurance lobby, consider this the definition of the phrase, or do they really intend a more broad interpretation of the term?  Do they intend for it to include any claim that is dismissed either by a judge or jury even though the party had a good faith belief and legal foundation to believe the claim had merit?

Just because a judge or jury dismisses a case does not necessarily mean it was frivolous under the legal definition.
Adopting this later more broad interpretation of the term “frivolous lawsuit” is fraught with danger for all of us and our legal system.  Claimants could then be punished for bringing a claim simply because they lost the case, and not because it was frivolous in the legal sense.

Just because a judge or jury dismisses a case does not necessarily mean it was frivolous under the legal definition.  The entire purpose of legal system is to resolve disputes – to decide for one side or the other.  Simply because a claim is won does not mean the defense was frivolous. Likewise, when a case is dismissed does not equate necessarily to it being a frivolous claim. It must be remembered that the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in all civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds twenty dollars.

The question, then, that must be considered is when a party knows the claim or defense is frivolous in the legal sense, what should happen as it is presented and moves through our legal system?

A frivolous lawsuit is defined as a “legal claim or defense presented even though the party or the party’s legal counsel had reason to know that the claim or defense was manifestly insufficient or futile, that is to say, had no legal merit.”
When there is any suspicion that a claim is frivolous, our legal system is more than equipped to deal with the perpetrator.  There are checks and balances throughout the process to guard against allowing a frivolous claim from proceeding successfully.  There are also sanctions that can be imposed against a party that brings a frivolous lawsuit once that is determined.

One way for a frivolous claim to be dismissed is for the opposing party to motion – or request – the court to dismiss the claim.  This is generally done by what is called a summary judgment motion.  If the judge agrees that the claim has no legal merit, the claim will be dismissed.  Knowing this, is the insurance lobby suggesting that judges or defense lawyers aren’t doing their jobs by allowing frivolous claims to proceed to trial?

Of course, there could be the rare case where a true frivolous claim proceeds to the jury because the judge makes a mistake or a defense lawyer does not make the motion to dismiss in the first place.  Let’s say that were to happen, then what?

It is, obviously, part of the jury’s job to decide if a claim has merit.  The jury too can reject a claim.  They do not have to award money simply because a case reaches them.  Is it then that our jury system is also not working?

Caps generally only go to worsen the financial condition of the seriously injured.
Okay, let’s say further that the jury too makes a mistake and gives an award on our fictitious frivolous claim.  Then what?  There are still even further safe guards to prevent the frivolous claim from succeeding.  These further safeguards are our appellate courts, including, in the right case, the Supreme Court of the United States.  Is our appellate system of review also a complete failure, such as to allow so many frivolous cases to successfully receive unwarranted monetary awards that it is actually choking our health system?

One might wonder, what is really going on here?  Could it simply be that insurance companies simply do not want to pay people who are seriously injured in an accident if they don’t have to?

Yet again, maybe all of this is wrong, and instead the insurance lobby defines frivolous only to mean injury cases where the nature of the injuries are relatively minor.  If so, then why do they ask for caps on jury awards?  Our juries, judges, and appellate courts are not in the habit of handing out large awards to people who are not seriously injured.  Moreover, there are the same safeguards in place to protect against such awards.  Appellate courts routinely reduce jury awards.

Why then are caps important?  A minor injury case would be well below the cap.  Caps are not relevant in such cases.  On the other hand, when someone is seriously injured due to the fault of another and can no longer work and take care of their family, then caps would come into place.  Why do we want to cap these cases?  Caps generally only go to worsen the financial condition of the seriously injured.

These are complex cases that juries were meant to decide. The notion that such claims are frivolous is frivolous itself.
What is really going on is that some very complex claims with very serious injuries, particularly medical malpractice cases, bring in millions of dollars in judgments and awards.  The insurance lobby would prefer not to have to pay these large damage claims.  Thus, they lobby to ingrain the idea that all such claims are frivolous and to cap the awards.

These claims, for example, may involve a brain injury to a baby sustained during birth.  If such a claim is proven and the doctor found at fault, the claim may be worth millions of dollars.  In these complex causes with very serious injuries, a judge should not dismiss the claim when there is a strong showing that the doctor was at fault for the baby’s damage.  It is then up to the jury to decide the merits of the claim and how much to award, if anything.  The appellate courts will then review the case to ensure the award is within certain established guidelines.

This is our justice system.  This is how it is suppose to work.  These are not cases where the claimant knew the claim was a phony.  These are complex cases that juries were meant to decide.  The notion that such claims are frivolous is frivolous itself.

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