The Myth of the Litigious Society: Why We Don't Sue

The Myth of the Litigious Society: Why We Don't Sue

by David M. Engel

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Why do Americans seem to sue at the slightest provocation? The answer may surprise you: we don’t! For every “Whiplash Charlie” who sees a car accident as a chance to make millions, for every McDonald’s customer to pursue a claim over a too-hot cup of coffee, many more Americans suffer injuries but make no claims against those responsible or their insurance companies. The question is not why Americans sue but why we don’t sue more often, and the answer can be found in how we think about injury and personal responsibility.
With this book, David M. Engel demolishes the myth that America is a litigious society. The sobering reality is that the vast majority of injury victims—more than nine out of ten—rely on their own resources, family and friends, and government programs to cover their losses. When real people experience serious injuries, they don’t respond as rational actors. Trauma and pain disrupt their thoughts, and potential claims are discouraged by negative stereotypes that pervade American television and popular culture. (Think Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, who keeps a box of neck braces in his office to help clients exaggerate their injuries.) Cultural norms make preventable injuries appear inevitable—or the victim’s fault. We’re taught to accept setbacks stoically and not blame someone else. But this tendency to “lump it” doesn’t just hurt the victims; it hurts us all. As politicians continue to push reforms that miss the real problem, we risk losing these claims as a way to quickly identify unsafe products and practices. Because injuries disproportionately fall on people with fewer resources, the existing framework creates a social underclass whose needs must be met by government programs all citizens shoulder while shielding those who cause the harm.

It’s time for America to have a more responsible, blame-free discussion about injuries and the law. With The Myth of the Litigious Society, Engel takes readers clearly and powerfully through what we really know about injury victims and concludes with recommendations for how we might improve the situation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226305189
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/16/2016
Series: Chicago Series in Law and Society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 710 KB

About the Author

David M. Engel is the Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, and the author, coauthor, or editor of eight books, including Rights of Inclusion: Law and Identity in the Life Stories of Americans with Disabilities, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Myth of the Litigious Society

Why We Don't Sue

By David M. Engel

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30518-9


The Case of the Missing Plaintiff

If most of us were asked why physically injured Americans rarely sue, we would probably think the question itself makes no sense. Everyone knows that we live in a highly litigious society, probably the most litigious on earth. We sue one another at the slightest provocation and view injuries as a chance to strike it rich. Politicians decry our insatiable appetite for the law, and legislatures have embraced "tort reform" in a vain attempt to slow the lawsuit juggernaut. Shouldn't we ask why Americans sue so much rather than so little?

In this instance, however, the thing that everyone knows for sure just ain't so. Researchers have repeatedly confirmed a surprising fact about injured Americans — the vast majority do not sue and do not even consult lawyers. Instead, even when they've been harmed by someone else's wrongful act and suffered serious loss, most injury victims make no attempt to hold the injurer responsible — in court or anywhere else. The reluctance of victims to confront their injurers is an empirical fact, though it directly contradicts what most Americans believe to be true of themselves and their fellow citizens. In the next chapter, we will explore more closely just how seldom it is that people with injuries assert a claim or invoke the law.

If it's true that most Americans don't insist on their rights, even when they suffer physical injuries after being wronged by another, then the premise of our question is not as ridiculous as it might seem. Why do claims and lawsuits occur so infrequently? What really needs to be explained is not our passion for litigation but the dog that doesn't bark. In the famous Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," Holmes shrewdly recognizes that the fact demanding explanation is the silence — the inactivity of a dog living at the site of an apparent murder. Holmes insists on the importance of this nonevent in a dialogue with Colonel Ross, a "well-known sportsman," who employed the murder victim:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

That is how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle renders the dialogue between Holmes and Ross. Suppose, however, that the two men had continued their discussion along the following lines:

"Quite right," responded Colonel Ross, "We need to do something about that dog's infernal barking in the night-time."

"No, no, you misunderstand me, Colonel. The dog didn't bark at all. That's the fact that demands explanation."

"We must pass a new ordinance cracking down on dog owners who allow their animals to make so much noise and disrupt the entire neighborhood. I will approach the town council tomorrow and recommend that we once and for all get this dog barking problem under control."

"Colonel Ross, please focus more carefully on the facts we have uncovered. What we need to explain is not why the dog barked but why he was silent. Let's pay attention to the actual evidence here!"

"Holmes, this epidemic of dog-barking is completely out of control. It is destroying the social fabric and moral character of the British people. Dog owners in our country have to demonstrate a greater sense of responsibility, and we should bring the full weight of the law to bear on this problem."

Speechless and exasperated, Holmes gnashes his teeth, then mutters a possibly obscene deprecation under his breath.


Much depends on determining why the dog in the story didn't bark — its silence provides the key that unlocks the mystery and identifies the murderer. So it is understandable that Holmes would experience utter frustration if Colonel Ross ignored the problem that presented itself — the dog's inactivity — and went on instead about solutions to a problem for which there was no credible evidence at all.

Yet that is precisely what has happened in discussions about injuries and lawsuits in America. The inactivity of injury victims, reconfirmed in study after study, has been ignored as a problem that demands explanation. Instead, specious claims of a litigation explosion have been made so often that they have rooted themselves in the national psyche and now seem too obvious to question. Researchers have decisively refuted the myth of litigiousness, but legislatures across the country have nevertheless adopted "tort reform" measures aimed at curbing the imagined proliferation of injury litigation. Some defenders of the tort law system have challenged these efforts, but almost no one has attempted to ask or answer the more basic and arguably the most important question, why doesn't the dog bark?

This question has fascinated me for many years. I am a law professor who teaches torts, which is the branch of our civil justice system that requires people, corporations, and sometimes governments to pay damages when they have violated a legal duty of care and caused harm. I find the phenomenon of the injury victim who doesn't claim deeply puzzling. It contradicts everything we have read or heard in the media about our lawsuit-prone society. It even violates the assumptions that tort experts themselves make about the behavior of injury victims. Yet I could find almost no research aimed at explaining why the dog doesn't bark in injury cases. I eventually concluded that the question was important enough to justify an all-out search for clues that might solve the mystery, including insights from disciplines quite remote from my own, such as rehabilitation science, nursing, anesthesiology, and neuroscience. This book presents the results of my investigation.


Each year, enormous numbers of injuries befall Americans and impair their lives, sometimes with devastating consequences. The National Safety Council surveyed accidents in the year 2012 and found that nearly one in every eight Americans suffered physical injuries that were serious enough to require medical treatment. That's over 38 million Americans seriously injured in a single year — and another 127,200 were killed. More than half of these injuries occurred in the home, another 12.8 percent at work, and 10.2 percent were associated with motor vehicles. Each year, our country experiences a huge number of injuries, a portion of which no doubt occurs because ofa wrong committed by someone else. Yet, large as these numbers are, they are greatly understated. The true injury problem is even worse. The NSC confined its survey to physical harms resulting from "accidents." It didn't include illnesses or degenerative conditions caused by wrongful conduct — such as toxic exposures or the sale of negligently designed pharmaceuticals. It did not attempt to count the hundreds of thousands of injuries and fatalities caused by errors in medical treatment or care. And it omitted nonphysical injuries that sometimes lead to physical setbacks, such as the infliction of emotional distress, acts of discrimination, slurs, and bullying. From a legal perspective, all of these harms are also considered injuries. If they were added to the figures in the NSC survey, the number of Americans injured each year would be shockingly large.

So yes, America does have an injury problem. But what is noteworthy about our response is not that too many unworthy claimants bring lawsuits at the drop of a hat. Rather, it is that more than nine out of ten injury victims assert no claim at all against their injurer — even in cases where it is likely that a legal duty was breached and a claim would succeed. In this book, I shall argue that the campaign to reduce damage awards and curtail tort actions is misguided and unfair. It makes no sense to respond to the millions of injuries Americans suffer each year by reducing their access to justice. So-called tort reform has made a serious problem of injuries in our society even worse. Moreover, tort reform has failed to deliver on its promises of reduced insurance premiums and cheaper products and services.

Is the answer, then, to unleash the power of tort law and encourage vastly greater numbers of lawsuits? As one who teaches tort law, do I favor using it whenever possible? No, definitely not. The purpose of this book is not to argue that many more injury victims should lodge claims. The book's subtitle is "Why We Don't Sue" and not "Let's All Litigate." Whether American society would be better off with a much higher number of lawsuits is debatable. Would we really want to live in a world where lawsuits were as common as candy? To answer that question would require another, very different book.

In my view, the tort reformers have got it wrong, with their unfounded tales of trigger-happy plaintiffs. Their highly successful public relations campaign exemplifies victim blaming at its worst. But the sworn opponents of tort reform, personal injury lawyers and others, have also misjudged the situation. They have failed to recognize that, even if tort reform could be dismantled overnight, the vast majority of injury victims would still avoid lawyers and would make no claims of any kind against their injurers. Tort reform has cut victims off from the possibility of full and fair compensation. But even if the shackles of tort reform were removed, few of them would bring a legal claim — for reasons this book will explain.

Although the capacity of tort law is much more limited than its defenders acknowledge, it does have an incremental social role to play, and we should not lose sight of its function because of the fog of "truthiness" generated by the tort reformers. The small minority of injury victims willing to sue does make a contribution to the public good. They are the canaries in the mineshaft, alerting society as a whole that dangerous situations exist and that negligent or reckless actors need to be called to account. High profile tort cases can trigger congressional action or encourage government agencies to issue new regulations. Personal injury lawsuits, as rare as they are, can "scare injurers straight" and deter further misconduct. And the occasional courtroom success can provide a satisfying symbolic statement about social values, about reestablishing the moral equilibrium. Tort law alone can do little to resolve our country's injury problem, no matter what the personal injury lawyers might have us believe, but it can play a necessary role in tandem with government regulation, media exposure, and market pressures.


At the very outset of my effort to emulate Sherlock Holmes, then, I had to confront a peculiar contradiction within a familiar public debate. Here is the contradiction: On the one side, proponents of tort reform strenuously advocate a set of solutions for a problem that does not, objectively speaking, exist — the problem of the hyper-litigious American. On the other side, defenders of personal injury litigation assume that tort law offers a solution to the national injury problem even though the overwhelming majority of injury victims never enter a lawyer's office or make any sort of legal claim against their injurers. A crucial question cries out for explanation yet everyone seems to ignore it — what can possibly explain the reluctance of most injury victims to assert claims and invoke their rights, even when there is strong evidence that the law is on their side? Because policy opponents pay so little attention to this question, the arguments on both sides of the debate badly miss the mark.

It may be helpful at this point to provide a little background. What is tort law, and where is it meant to fit in our society's overall response to the injury problem? Where did modern tort law come from, and how did it give rise to the tort reform movement?

Injuries are a universal fact of human existence, and each society develops its own set of responses. Dostoevsky is said to have remarked, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." The same could be said of injuries — a society can be judged by how it cares for injury victims, how it sanctions injurers, how it classifies injuries, and how it reduces the risk of injury for the population as a whole. Serious injuries can destroy lives, not only those of the direct victims but also those of their families and friends. Injuries create immediate, out-of-pocket costs, including medical bills and lost wages, and they also have long-term effects such as unemployment, dependency, and poverty. In short, injuries have serious repercussions, not just for injury victims but for society as a whole.

So what is it that American society does about injuries? We address the needs of injury victims by leaving many of them to fend for themselves, pay injury costs out of their own pockets, arrange their own care, and attempt to manage their own recovery. Beyond self-help, some injury victims have their needs met through their health and accident insurance, through payments by the injurer's liability insurance, through workers' compensation, and through government benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security Disability Insurance. Tort law is another mechanism by which injury victims can satisfy their post-injury needs. It operates through legal claims brought directly against the persons or companies that caused the harm.

Similarly, we address the injurer's behavior and responsibilities in many — perhaps most — instances through a laissez-faire approach, trusting social sanctions or market forces to pressure the injurer into offering compensation or reducing risky behavior. More interventionist approaches include the use of criminal law sanctions (fines or imprisonment for injuring another person), government regulation, and mandatory liability insurance. And, as we shall see, tort law may also play a role in sanctioning injurer misconduct and deterring others from engaging in unacceptable behavior.

The balm tort law prescribes for injuries is money, which it distributes to injury victims in two different forms. Compensatory damages require defendants to pay an amount that makes up for the loss they have inflicted on the plaintiff. The loss may be pecuniary (medical expenses, lost income, and other present or future out-of-pocket costs) or nonpecuniary (pain and suffering). Punitive damages, on the other hand, are reserved for cases involving particularly egregious behavior, what the law calls "willful or wanton" misconduct. Courts make the defendants pay punitive damages in order to punish them and deter future misdeeds. From reading the newspapers or watching TV, you might think that punitive damages are awarded in most tort cases, but in fact they are extremely rare. A recent Department of Justice study found that plaintiffs received punitive damage awards in only 3 percent of all tort cases brought in state courts, which is where most injury litigation takes place.

Tort law is not some newfangled gimmick dreamed up yesterday by clever trial lawyers. It has ancient roots in Anglo-American history. But American tort law did not take its present form until the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. As industrial injuries skyrocketed, American judges engaged in what we nowadays might call the most sweeping "tort reform" in our history. Because of their concern that the companies spearheading our industrial development could be crippled by lawsuits, judges simply changed the rules of the game. They made it much harder for injury victims to sue by abandoning an older standard of strict liability ("if you broke it, you pay for it"), which they replaced with a new standard of negligence (no liability unless the injury victim can prove that someone committed a specific unreasonable act). Other new rules and standards protected potential defendants even further and made it extremely difficult for injury victims to recover damages. American tort law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came to be dominated by a "caveat emptor" philosophy that "swept beyond commercial dealings to the marketplace of personal injury as well: let the victim, as well as the buyer, beware."

Of course there were some exceptions, and the pendulum occasionally swung in the other direction. As twentieth-century tort law evolved, it became friendlier in some ways to plaintiffs' interests. In fact, by the middle of the twentieth century, some judges in injury cases began to ask not who was at fault but who was best able to reduce the number and cost of injuries, insure against them, or redistribute costs in order to spread the burden among all those connected to an enterprise. In other words, they came to see tort law as an instrument to implement broader policies aimed at the public good and not just as a mechanism to compensate individual victims. In cases involving dangerous or defective products, some judges abandoned the negligence requirement entirely and forced injurers — who were often large corporations — to internalize the costs of injuries even when there was no proof they were at fault.


Excerpted from The Myth of the Litigious Society by David M. Engel. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1          The Case of the Missing Plaintiff
2          “Like It or Lump It”
3          How Real People Experience Injuries
4          “You Think with Your Body”
5          Theories, Models, Dogs, and Fleas
6          Causation, Cognition, and Injury
7          The Physical Environment of Injuries
8          The Social and Cultural Environment of Injuries
9          The Influence of Others and the Decision to Lump
10        Conclusion

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