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December 11, 2008

When the Faces of Lawsuit Abuse Look a Lot Like You

“The way you run your business—you start to second guess how you do business, because you’re worried about the next lawsuit. And that’s not the way to run a company.” – Howard Weiss
 
Reading this quote, you might think Howard is the CEO of a large corporation that has problems with mega class action lawsuits.

It is true that Howard owns a company that was sued.  But his business—Contemporary Watercrafters of Rockville, Maryland—is a locally-owned swimming pool maintenance and supply company that employs about twenty people.

Howard’s small business was the target of an enormous lawsuit that could have forced him to close his doors.  His offense?  A wild Canada goose nesting outside his store startled a passerby, causing her to fall.  Two years later, Howard was served with papers announcing that the woman was suing Contemporary Watercrafters for $750,000, alleging that the goose was the store’s responsibility.  Ironically, Howard had wanted to remove the goose from his property long before the accident, but, because it was protected under the Migratory Species Act, the bird could not be disturbed.

Howard’s story is now one of many featured on FacesOfLawsuitAbuse.org, a nationwide public awareness campaign by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), designed to show that abusive lawsuits affect real people in very real ways.     

Most everyone has heard about the Washington, D.C. judge who made international news when he sued a local dry cleaner for $54 million over a pair of pants.  But what about the thousands of other stories that do not make the front page?  Now, stories of lawsuit abuse like Howard’s—as well as those of the youth baseball coach sued when a player misjudged a ball he was fielding in practice, and an 11-year-old girl sued by an adult bicyclist who hit her from behind while she was rollerblading—have a chance to be heard.

America is now the land of lawsuits.  The U.S. has the most expensive litigation system in the world, costing our economy $252 billion last year alone, which translates into more than $3,300 for a family of four.  

But while lawsuits are often considered to be fights between “rich trial lawyers” and “big corporations,” small businesses tend to bear a significant brunt of our lawsuit-happy culture.  According to a recent study, small businesses pay out $98 billion per year in litigation costs.  It is not surprising then that in a 2007 survey of small business owners, nearly two-thirds admitted to making business decisions solely to avoid being sued.
  
The good news is that Americans are growing tired of paying for these abusive lawsuits.  A 2008 national election-night poll of voters conducted for ILR found that 83 percent of voters believe the number of frivolous lawsuits is a serious problem, with strong majorities agreeing across the political spectrum. That same poll showed that 73 percent of voters believe that lawyers benefit most from lawsuits, while only three percent say victims do.
 
Americans know we have a lawsuit abuse problem in this country.  They recognize that much of the litigation explosion is being driven by plaintiffs’ lawyers looking to strike it rich.  What they are starting to appreciate is that these lawsuits are harming the lives of average people in their community.
  
You might say that Howard Weiss was lucky.  His two-year legal ordeal “only” cost him and his employees lost sales and growth opportunities due to the countless hours they spent away from the business to attend to depositions, meetings, responses to legal motions, court preparations, and a full jury trial.  At the end of day, Howard won his case and got to keep his business.  Now, what he worries about is the next abusive lawsuit that could come his way.

Others are not so lucky.  The owners of Custom Cleaners, the D.C. dry cleaners sued by a judge over a pair of pants, were forced to shutter two of their three stores.  And unfortunately, even though the judge lost his initial lawsuit, he appealed, and today the case remains alive in the District of Columbia court system.

Talk to the plaintiffs’ lawyers and they will cite cases like Howard’s or the dry cleaner’s as proof the system works, because there was no judgment against them.  According to the lawyers, massive legal fees and lost revenue are just the cost of doing business in our litigious society.
 
But, to a growing number of Americans, the costs are becoming unacceptable once they see it is their neighbors, friends and corner stores that are the targets of abusive litigation.  Check out the videos on the FacesOfLawsuitAbuse.org website, and you might realize that those featured in the stories look a lot like the people you know.

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