As part of my current research, I’m skimming over American court docket summaries. Some are terrifying, some hilarious, and others are unbelievably frivolous, but the group as a whole gives a wonderful insight into the litigious culture that America has perfected. It’s easy to dismiss this culture as a result of poor society or greed, and to lament the amount of time, capital and effort Americans spend suing one-another, but it does have a basis beyond the desires to blame others for one’s problems and to Get Rich Quick.
As a new country, America quickly defined itself as being about the rights of the individual (“We The People…”) and its capitalist, republic-based structure very much implies a focus towards personal responsibility and action, rather than government intervention. The traditional expectation is that individuals will stand up for themselves, rather than being supported by a benevolent authority. The economic and personal upsides to this are somewhat tempered by, for example, the lack of socialist support and healthcare that exist, but nevertheless, it is the prevailing culture of the country.
Plaintiff decedent honked at a police car who pulled in front of him, and defendant police officers pulled him over, ordered him out of the car at gunpoint, and tasered him repeatedly, despite the fact that he was a well known, nonviolent person in the community. Witnesses pleaded with the police officers to stop, but they refused to, and the plaintiff died at the scene.
~ Kephart ex rel Kephart v. County of San Bernardino, September 2011
Cases like the above show the individual’s last recourse in cases where the self-governing justice system decides its officers have ‘acted reasonably’. This is amongst the most shocking of cases I found from the last couple of years.
Less morbidly, it’s been fun reading the pop-culture lawsuits that come about fairly regularly: musical infringement; out-of-context use of celebrity quotes or television show clips; defamation of character; and numerous copyright or brand infringements.
Will I Am Music, its related entities and co-defendants infringed upon the musical composition of plaintiff composer entitled “I Am Freak” by using some portion of the song in the new composition entitled “My Humps” which was recorded by the Black Eyed Peas, causing plaintiff to suffer damages.
~ McCants v. Tolliver, April 2011
I was fascinated by the handful of tipping lawsuits I saw in the corpus. The prevalent tipping culture in America is, somewhat, codified in law, and employers have the right to pay an hourly wage less than the minimum wage, provided that their employee can make up the difference in tips. If the employee should fail, during any shift, to make enough in tips to equivalently gain minimum wage, the employer must ‘top-up’ the difference. Tip pooling has its own subsection of the law, whereby pooled tips in many states may not be shared with supervisors, or those who would not normally earn tips, such as dishwashers or chefs.
Interestingly, in many states (not including New York), a ‘service charge’, as is often added to the bill for large groups, is the property of the establishment, not the servers, and the amount received by the servers is up to the employer. Finally, awfully, employers in many states are able to deduct the cost of credit card transactions from the tip given, where the tip is added by card — so always tip in cash.
Class Action- Gulfstream Park Racing Association, Inc. failed to comply with the “tip-credit” requirements pursuant to the Fair labor Standards Acts by including non-”tipped’ employees, including but not limited to floor supervisors and cashiers whom received a portion of plaintiff employee’s tips, causing him and the putative class to suffer damages.
~ Bowers v. Gulfstream Park Racing Association, Inc., February 2011
It’s impossible to escape the deluge of medical malpractice adverts that plague New York, and American TV. Most disturbing amongst these is the trend of birth-defect advertisements which encourage parents to sue every doctor involved in their pregnancy for any illness or disability their child suffers. These are high-value suits and often settled out-of-court for millions of dollars.
In addition to these, there are literally tens of thousands of small personal injury cases, and a good number of individuals who have filed more than 10 such cases against different companies in the past couple of years. The (relatively) small value of these cases, coupled with the ‘loser pays costs’ principle common in American courts, ensures that companies will often settle with the plaintiff regardless of actual fault, as it turns out cheaper than maintaining a defence against all comers.
Plaintiff customer sustained injuries after she slipped and fell on a puddle of water on the way to a ladies room on defendant International Speedway’s premises.
Requested: In excess of $25,000 in compensatory damages, and costs.
~ Riebau v. International Speedway Corp., September 2010
It’s been quite a shock to my system seeing such comprehensive evidence for (and sometimes against) my prejudged stereotypes around American litigation, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking with lawyers and American legal experts around these various case types to try and understand them better.
I may not be in favour of it, but at least I now understand the system and culture of litigation here a lot better, and I’d find it hard to judge anyone negatively for taking part in it. Except maybe Ms. Riebau et al.
Always tip in cash.