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When a Rose Is Not a Rose Is Not a Rose…And the Truth Is Not Just a Matter of Semantics


Every time voters are asked to consider a referendum that limits citizens’ constitutional rights to seek justice from wrongdoers, the same catchy phrase echoes the airwaves: “Stop frivolous lawsuits!”

Well, who wouldn’t buy that? “Frivolous” has little weight or importance, has no sound basis, lacks seriousness. Paris Hilton is frivolous. But how can someone whose family has been obliterated in a fiery crash caused by a drunk driver, or whose loved one has been maimed by a surgeon’s scalpel, be called frivolous?

The point, claim so-called tort reform advocates, is that too many frivolous lawsuits are clogging the court system. Worse, frivolous jurors – apparently unaware of the unserious and insubstantial nature of death and injury – are handing out billions of dollars to undeserving plaintiffs.

Au contraire. It just isn’t so.

Civil trials dropped by nearly half – 47% – between 1992 and 2001: auto accident trials by 15%, premises liability cases by 52.1%, medical malpractice suits by 14.2%, product liability court cases by 76%. What’s more, the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the size of awards is on a significant down-trend.

One of the reasons for these decreases is that there are already federal measures in place to block law suits without merit – as there should be. Unscrupulous plaintiffs and attorneys crying “Wolf!” damage the credibility of victims who genuinely deserve justice. The law has always required that claims must be backed by strong evidence in order to go to trial. In addition, there are substantial federal penalties for attorneys who file meritless complaints.

So the next time we hear the phrase “frivolous lawsuit,” we should remind ourselves that this kind of talk is, well . . . frivolous.

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