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To The Chamber: Is that all you’ve got?

Earlier this week, the branch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that seeks to limit consumers’ access to the courts published a brief description of what it deemed the 10 “most egregious examples of frivolous and abusive litigation” from 2011. The list is meant to support its argument that the legal system is “packed with frivolous suits.” According to the Chamber, such litigation is an oppressive burden on business (particularly small business) and inflicts a “devastating impact” on society.

But after reviewing the Chamber’s examples of the most egregious abuses of the legal system, we couldn’t help but ask, “Is that all you’ve got?”

The Chamber’s list includes a grand total of zero cases against small businesses.

We also couldn’t find a single instance among the Chamber’s examples in which the plaintiff was actually awarded damages, although we had to look beyond the Chamber’s brief summaries, which conveniently omitted the results of the cases. If businesses really are suffering significant losses from unfounded claims, don’t you think the Chamber would give us some examples?

"taylor lincoln"
A man who doesn't lie! Public Citizen Congress Watch Research Director Taylor Lincoln

And last, if the Chamber says the real problem is with businesses’ costs of litigating unmerited cases (as opposed to paying damages awards), we point out that eight of its ten examples were dismissed or withdrawn. In fact, at least six of the cases were terminated within six months—which is pretty fast by litigation standards—and four within a month. The two ongoing cases were filed since October. If the claims are really as silly as they sound, we have faith that the courts will dispense with them quickly.

Here is a brief rundown on the cases the Chamber presented, complete with what we know about the cases’ resolutions:

  • A man who was convicted of kidnapping a Kansas couple after breaking into their house while fleeing police sued the couple in a longhand submission from prison. He claims the couple broke an oral contract, made while he held them hostage, to hide him from the police. His case, chosen as the most ridiculous of 2011 by more than half of the Chamber’s voters, was filed just a few months ago. It’s still ongoing but if the Chamber’s claims are correct, we wouldn’t bet on it to get very far.
  • A California woman sued the children’s restaurant and arcade chain Chuck E. Cheese alleging that it exposed children to casino-style gambling in its arcades. The mother dropped her case within a week. As an aside, her case may not be so absurd. In 1996 the Alabama legislature saw fit to pass a law prohibiting prizes in arcades.
  • A woman sued Carnival Cruise Lines in small claims court claiming that its cruise ship was moving too fast and made her and many other passengers sick. Her case was dismissed.
  • A 60-year-old New York man sued the nonprofit sponsor of a musical competition for age bias because it would not allow him to participate. After his case was tossed out by the court, he resubmitted it, alleging that the 88-year-old judge was biased against him. The resubmitted case was also dismissed by the same judge.
  • In 2009, a pair of young adults sued their mother for neglect. The plaintiffs cited “playing favorites” and not including gifts with birthday cards. The court dismissed the case, saying the complaints did not meet the standard of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The siblings appealed the case. The dismissal was upheld by an appeals court.
  • An overweight man from New York sued a White Castle because the booths in the restaurant were too small for someone of his size. The man had complained to the restaurant for two years, saying that he just wanted to “sit down like a normal person,” and reportedly received a promise that something would be done. The man dropped the suit after the restaurant added freestanding chairs and tables.
  • A New York woman sued the preschool that her daughter attended because, she claimed, the school did not adequately prepare her child for standardized tests used to determine placement in top elementary schools. She sought a refund of the tuition and class action status for other parents. The case was dismissed.
  • A man in Virginia sued a bar in which he got into an armed altercation for failing to search him and confiscate his gun before he entered the establishment. A federal judge dismissed the case.
  • A woman sued Century 21 department stores for $5 million after she was shorted 80 cents when she returned some items that she had purchased with the $5 coupon. She also sought class action status. The plaintiff dropped the suit.
  • A Michigan woman sued the film distributer Film District because, she claimed, the movie she saw did not resemble the trailer. She wants the price of her ticket refunded. 

It’s hard to see the Chamber poll as anything more than a sideshow intended to distract people from the most important abuses in the courts. Take, for example, the unprecedented flood of fraudulent filings by mortgage servicers. These are companies that deliberately falsified paperwork they submitted to courts in order to unjustly kick people out of their homes—and did so on a massive scale. Or consider the example of Capital One bank filing more than 15,000 cases to collect debts illegally. If the Chamber were truly concerned with addressing abuses of the courts, rather than insulating its members from accountability, then it would work to remedy these serious abuses rather than opposing efforts to fix them.

One of the greatest ironies is that the Chamber’s positions serve to enable abuses of legal fairness rather than combat them. Consider the case of the kidnapper reportedly suing a couple over their alleged breach of a contract he struck with them while he held them hostage. If the kidnapper had been clever enough to include a clause mandating that disputes over the contract be settled in arbitration, the Chamber’s policy prescription would require the couple to plead their case in the arbitration forum of the kidnapper’s choosing. And if the couple wanted the forced the arbitration clause voided so the case could be heard in court, they would have to make that request to—you guessed it—the arbitration firm selected by the kidnapper.

Yes, in America, people do enjoy the freedom to seek redress in the justice system when they believe they have been harmed by a business or another individual. In a country of 300 million people, it’s not surprising that in the course of a year, 10 Americans might submit claims that seem absurd. In most of the examples above, the courts found the plaintiffs’ evidence insufficient and dismissed the cases. There is scant evidence that businesses suffered anything more than minor inconveniences from these episodes.

The mission of the Chamber’s “ridiculous lawsuits” project is to make the case that meritless litigation is so prevalent and harmful that consumers’ legal rights must be curtailed. On the basis of the evidence presented, we would like to submit a motion to dismiss the Chamber’s case because it strikes us as, well … ridiculous.

This blog post was co-authored by Kelly Ngo, also from Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.