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Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway

Tall tales of outrageous jury awards have helped bolster business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system.

August 14, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Merv Grazinski set his Winnebago on cruise control, slid away from the wheel and went back to fix a cup of coffee.

You can guess what happened next: The rudderless, driverless Winnebago crashed.

Grazinski blamed the manufacturer for not warning against such a maneuver in the owner's manual. He sued and won $1.75 million.

His jackpot would seem to erase any doubt that the legal system has lost its mind. Indeed, the Grazinski case has been cited often as evidence of the need to limit lawsuits and jury awards.

There's just one problem: The story is a complete fabrication.

It is one of the more comical tales in an anthology of legal urban legends that have circulated widely on the Internet, regaling millions with examples of cluelessness and greed being richly rewarded by the courts. These fables have also been widely disseminated by columnists and pundits who, in their haste to expose the gullibility of juries, did not verify the stories and were taken in themselves.

Although the origins of the tales are unknown, some observers, including George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, say their wide acceptance has helped to rally public opinion behind business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system by restricting some types of lawsuits and capping damage awards.

"I am astonished how successful these urban legends have been in influencing policy," Turley said. "The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill."

The tales are making the rounds at a time when business lobbyists and conservative politicians seem to have gained the upper hand in their drive to rein in lawsuits -- a campaign that they call tort reform but that trial lawyers and consumer groups say is an assault on the legal rights of ordinary people.

According to the American Tort Reform Assn. -- which is backed by insurance, drug, auto and other major industries -- 49 states have enacted at least one measure on the group's wish list over the last two decades, including limits on punitive damages and caps on awards for pain and suffering in medical malpractice claims.

In February, President Bush signed a federal law that will make it harder to bring class-action suits in state courts.

And some polls suggest that there is public support for further change.

For example, a survey conducted for the American Tort Reform Assn. in 2003 found that by a ratio of 2 to 1, respondents believed that lawsuits were harming the economy and stifling job creation. In a survey released in June by Common Good, a conservative legal reform group, 83% of respondents said it was too easy to file invalid lawsuits, and 55% agreed with the statement that "many people use the justice system almost like a lottery -- they start lawsuits to see if they can win millions."

Such fears, fanned by anecdotes like the Grazinski tale, have no empirical basis, said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, a consumer group that opposes the agenda of the business groups. "The data tends not to support the allegation that there is an out-of-control crisis with the legal system," she said.

She and others point to surveys by the National Center for State Courts and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showing an apparent decline in personal injury suits and in the size of jury awards to successful plaintiffs.

But advocates of reining in lawsuits say there is no need to invent fictitious examples of legal abuse. "All false stories should be exposed," said Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the tort reform association. But "you don't have to go to the surreal" to find dubious verdicts, he added.

The group's website includes a link to what it says are real but "Looney Lawsuits," including a recent case in which a Portland, Ore., jury awarded $1.6 million to a woman who was seriously disfigured in a botched liposuction surgery. The jury imposed the judgment on the publisher of a phone directory after concluding that the company had knowingly allowed a dermatologist to falsely advertise himself as a board certified plastic surgeon.

Whether it's the rich detail of the phony yarns that resonates or the fact that people are prepared to think the worst of the legal system, the bogus tales have attracted crowds of believers.

The first time he heard of the Grazinski case, Cornell University law professor Theodore Eisenberg was a guest on a Rochester, N.Y., radio talk show. Annoyed by Eisenberg's defense of the justice system, a caller flung the Winnebago windfall in his face.

"You're saying the system's not crazy," Eisenberg recalled the man saying, "but what about this case?"

Besides the Grazinski saga, there's the mythical case of Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pa., who got into an argument with her boyfriend in a restaurant, threw a drink at him and then broke her tailbone when she slipped on the wet spot on the floor. Naturally, Carson sued -- and won $113,500.

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