Claims that there is an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits have become common place. Frivolous lawsuits, ones with no legal basis, are said to be clogging courts and costing taxpayers billions. But is that really true? The short answer is no. But as a Long Beach personal injury attorney, I have seen defendants discount the legitimacy of valid lawsuits by calling them frivolous.
Several mechanisms built into the legal system help prevent, dismiss or correct frivolous cases. Strangely enough, the biggest problem isn’t a deluge of frivolous lawsuits being filed. Rather, it is that people believe many personal injury cases are frivolous. This comes from a general misunderstanding of what constitutes a legitimate personal injury claim. Understanding that will help people distinguish between what’s fair and what’s frivolous.
Frivolous or Legitimate Lawsuit?
I was at a cocktail party the other night when a wealthy property owner started asking me questions about a “frivolous lawsuit” filed against him. A woman slipped and fell on soda someone spilled on the lobby floor of his Beverly Hills office building. “Why is it my fault that she slipped and fell on soda someone else spilled,” he asked. “Why should I be responsible for that?”
I tried to frame the answer by asking some questions of my own:
- Did he know who spilled the soda?
- Had the spill been reported to any building employees prior to the victim slipping and falling?
- How long had the spill been on the floor of the lobby?
- How large was the spill?
- What maintenance procedures are in place to routinely keep the lobby floors clean?
- Did the lobby have surveillance cameras that recorded the incident?
I explained that the answers to these questions determine whether the woman’s lawsuit is frivolous, or a legitimate personal injury claim.
What Did the Landlord Know?
The accident the property owner described is known as a Premises Liability Case. These cases are difficult to win unless they meet certain criteria. To prevail, the first thing a victim must prove is that a “dangerous condition” existed. In the property owner’s case, there was soda on the marble floor of the lobby. This created a dangerous condition that caused the woman to slip and fall, and become injured. As a result, criteria #1 has been met.
The next requirement that needs to be met is “Notice.” This is where most premises liability cases fall apart. The Plaintiff must prove the Defendant “knew,” or “should have known,” the dangerous condition existed, and did not remedy it. This can be difficult. The woman suing the property owner needs to prove one of two things:
- Someone working for the owner knew the spill occurred and didn’t mop it up; or,
- The spill was there long enough that the owner had sufficient time to see it and mop it up.
The property owner has no duty to prove he was not negligent. The burden of proof is on the Plaintiff. If she can’t meet this burden, the case will be dismissed on what is known as a Motion for Summary Judgment. This is a mechanism in the legal system that guards against frivolous lawsuits. It quickly dismisses cases when the facts and law show the Plaintiff doesn’t have a valid claim.
While surveillance cameras can help answer some crucial questions, other types of evidence may also be needed. Eyewitness accounts are valuable. So are building maintenance records.
Is Blaming the Victim a Good Defense?
Another hurdle for the Plaintiff, is the defense of “Comparative Negligence.” Comparative negligence is a legal theory used in personal injury cases. The theory is that sometimes all parties contributed in some way to the accident. Comparative negligence attempts to assign the appropriate percentage of the blame to each party.
In California, the jury assigns a percentage of the fault to the Plaintiff and to the Defendant. Then, whatever compensation is awarded to the Plaintiff is reduced by the percentage of blame the Jury assigned to him or her.
In fact, Defendants almost always assert the Plaintiff should have seen what was an “open and obvious condition.” This was also true for the property owner at the party. “How did the woman not see the big puddle of Coke on the white marble floor?”
Juries hearing slip and fall cases almost always assign some % of blame to the Plaintiff. So even if the Jury finds the property owner negligent for failing to clean up the Coke, the Plaintiff’s award will likely be reduced by the percent of negligence attributed to her.
After explaining all this to the property owner, he seemed a bit relieved, but was still angered by what he thinks is a frivolous claim filed against him.
Overcoming the Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits
Many defendants automatically assume any claim against them is frivolous. As the case progresses, however, they finally conclude otherwise. Then, they either settle and fairly compensate the injured victim, or risk getting hit with a large Jury Verdict. Most people don’t have a clear understanding of the legal process and the risks and rewards inherent therein.
It is therefore important for Plaintiffs to hire seasoned competent counsel. The same is equally true for Defendants. Because if they understand the case against them is lawful, not frivolous, settlement is more likely.
The property owner at the party could not answer my questions, but at least now he understands their significance. Most importantly, he left understanding that although the case against him might be frivolous, in fact, it might not.
How Can a Long Beach Personal Injury Attorney Help You?
Your Injuries Are Personal to Me
My law practice exclusively handles personal injury cases. If you were injured in a slip and fall accident, you are entitled to compensation from whoever caused the accident. I take your injuries personally so I will handle every aspect of your case and make sure you receive maximum compensation.
You are under no obligation and you will never pay any money unless you recover damages for your injuries. I offer bilingual services and I am available 24/7 to talk to you about your case.
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