Free Up Our Courts By Stemming Frivolous Lawsuits

By: Tom Stebbins

Court administrators were recently in Albany to discuss how recent budget cuts have forced them to scale back court services.  This should serve as a timely reminder to all that New York needs to pass reforms to stop the flow of frivolous, and sometimes ridiculous, lawsuits that are choking our legal system.  In just the past year we in have seen too many examples of these types of cases – from the 290lb man suing White Castle because the booths were too small, to the husband of the woman who drunkenly drove a van full of children the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway suing the state for “inadequate signage.” Did you know that in 2010, a New York lawyer successfully filed a lawsuit against a four year old girl?

Many New Yorkers may just shake their head at our overly litigious society.  But what they may not know is that New York has a number of laws, supported by the powerful trial lawyer lobby, that make it all too easy and profitable to sue.  Consider, for example, the provision of “joint and several” liability that can force party that is as little as 1% liable to pay 100% of the settlement.  This provision encourages trial lawyers to take a “sue everybody” approach, in the hopes of roping every possible solvent bystander into our already overburdened legal system.

Our doctors, hospitals and nursing homes are similarly hounded by frivolous claims, driving up the cost of healthcare for all New Yorkers and driving doctors from our state.  An independent review of closed claims by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 30% of malpractice claims were “frivolous” and another 26% were of “uncertain merit.” Again, New York encourages these claims with an outdated standard of evidence well below that used in Federal court and many other states.  For example, under New York expert witness laws, a podiatrist can testify in a neurosurgery case, and often plaintiffs do not have to even disclose their witnesses until shortly before trial.  This encourages the practice of “trial by ambush,” turning our justice system into a profitable game for some. If the goal is to ensure fairness for all parties, New York must require expert witnesses to be adequately qualified.

And lest you think that you will never be the subject of a frivolous case, consider for a moment that under New York law you can be sued by a burglar for injuries incurred while breaking into your home.  Nearly every other state has solved this legal loophole.  Thankfully, a bill before the New York State legislature would limit your liability for a trespasser’s injuries. Who could be against that? We as sensible New Yorkers must demand reforms to our civil justice system to stop the frivolous lawsuits and ensure that our courts’ limited resources are preserved for those who truly need them.

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