The perception that our courts are inundated with “frivolous lawsuits” probably reached its peak in the mid 1990’s, but the foundation for such perception was actually formed a decade earlier.
In 1986, the American Tort Reform Association was formed by corporations, large businesses and professional societies looking to shield themselves from accountability in the civil justice system.
Their goals included capping punitive damages, restricting non-economic damages and abolishing joint and several liability, which would create a lopsided system heavily weighted in favor of defendants.
The organization quickly established itself as lobbyist juggernaut when President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at one of their meetings shortly after their formation.
Having the endorsement of the most powerful man in the world was a major boost for ATRA. But more than that, a few excerpts from his speech became the template for the organization’s public relations strategy for the next two decades.
During his speech, Reagan told the story of a California man who was in a phone booth when a drunk driver smashed into him, sending him to the hospital:
“In California, a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of her car, and crashed into the phone booth. Now it’s no surprise that the injured man sued. But you might be startled to hear whom he sued: the telephone company and associated firms.”
In Reagan’s words, this was “looney” and an example of how the tort system was “out of control.” Although Reagan did not technically lie, he did misleadingly leave out important details about the case.
The Case of Charles Bigbee
The name of the man in the phone booth was Charles Bigbee, a custodian for the city of Los Angeles. The accident, which took place 14 years before Reagan’s speech, caused severe injuries to Bigbee, requiring amputation of his leg and permanently affecting his ability to work.
Several other people in the area ran away when they saw the car out of control and heading towards the booth. Bigbee tried to flee, but the door was stuck, locking him inside.
As a janitor, Bigbee’s annual salary was only $7,374.57. His insurance policy only partially covered his medical expenses from the accident, leaving him with over $1,500 in unpaid bills. He was physically unable to work, and constantly pestered by collection agents.
He continued to require ongoing medical care, including getting an artificial leg, a wheelchair and a knee brace for his good leg. Without work, he expected his insurance to expire in a few months. After those few months passed, he decided to sue.
His attorney, through his investigation, learned that a phone booth at the identical spot was struck and destroyed by another driver less than two years prior. The phone company replaced the booth without adding a guard rail or warning, and with a malfunctioning door.
Looking at the scene of the accident, the attorney built the liability case, involving multiple parties contributing to the cause of action. The first was the woman who struck the booth with her car, the concession company that served her alcohol, and other related parties. They settled with Bigbee for $25,000, with the driver paying half.
This fact was left out of Reagan’s speech and subsequent re-tellings.
The Phone Companies Defense
With the resources from that settlement, Bigbee’s attorney was able to mount a case against several companies who were responsible for the phone booth design, operation, maintenance and placement. These companies were highly profitable at the time and put up a united defense.
After nearly a decade of legal battles that wound up in the California Supreme Court, the companies eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Bigbee was able to return to work after a few years, albeit in a diminished physical role. His attorney later stated that he could have retired off his settlement and social security, but wanted to return to work.
Unlike the McDonald’s coffee spill legend, Bigbee’s case and trial were not watercooler topics. It wasn’t until Reagan’s speech in 1986 (three years after a decision was issued by the California Supreme Court) that Bigbee’s case caught the attention of the public.
The truncated version Reagan told became the silver bullet for the early tort reform movement. This version of events, stripped of all context, once again trivialized the injuries of an honest man, and maligned the name of the attorney and the judges who were committed to doing their jobs.
These types of anecdotes, rumors and urban legends became the primary tool for building public support for tort reform. Unfortunately, the legacy of this movement is still felt today in the form of various barriers to plaintiff’s rights, forced arbitration and litigation immunity.
Most people who seek a personal injury attorney in Waterbury are people just like Charles Bigbee. That is, good people who have been severely injured as a result of another party’s negligence, and are burdened with costs they can’t cover. Equal protection under the law, and the right to sue are basic tenets of our justice system.
The is the second part of a three part series, The Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits. Read part one, “Hot Coffee.”