Trial lawyers, rejoice: The year’s most ludicrous civil court decisions

Robby Soave Reporter
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Another year, another parade of frivolous lawsuits resulting in millions of dollars in compensatory damages and trial lawyer fees.

The American Tort Reform Association publishes a yearly list of the most unbelievable civil litigation outcomes from around the country. The ATRA’s “Judicial Hellholes” report spotlights unique cases of judicial overreach that expand the average person’s liability while trampling legal precedents and striking down tort reforms.

Here is The Daily Caller’s selection of five of the worst offenders.

BP still paying for Gulf Coast cleanup, and everyone is cashing in: In response to the Gulf Oil Spill in 2010, BP waived its own liability cap and agreed to pay compensation to all residents who had suffered economic losses, with just one stipulation–the losses had to be real.

It didn’t take long, however, for the abuse to begin. As a result of a settlement with a group of lawyers representing self-described spill victims, BP agreed to make additional payments, “knowing full well that this would likely mean that people whose economic losses had no connection to the spill would receive compensation,” in the words of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera.

In Nocera’s view, BP did the honorable thing by agreeing to pay more claims than what the law required. Thanks to the ensuing flood of baseless claims and corrupt court decisions, however, no company will ever again make the mistake of being too nice.

In West Virginia, if you fall down the stairs, it’s the property owner’s fault: Liability law generally holds that property owners must warn people about dangers and pitfalls that aren’t readily noticeable. It does not, however, require property owners to line their stores and houses with pillows, guarding against every conceivable injury.

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals recently said otherwise. The plaintiff in the case was a man who walked with a cane, and was accustomed to frequent tumbles. Yet he chose to descend a flight of stairs in a store parking lot, even though there were no guardrails. (The owner had removed the guardrails due to his concern that the skateboarders who frequented them were going to break their necks, and was scheduled to have new rails installed in two weeks.)

The court ruled 3-2 that the owner was at fault for the man’s injuries. Writing for the dissent, Justice Allen Loughry II wrote that the unfortunate decision would, “saddle property owners with the impossible burden of making their premises ‘injury proof’’ for persons who either refuse or are inexplicably incapable of taking personal responsibility for their own safety.”

West Virginians: If you suspect someone is recklessly unconcerned with his own safety, best not to let him on your property at all.

Company appeals court decision, is correct and wins, ends up paying even more: Judicial overreach in Ohio may send a message to companies that they are better off just accepting a bad deal; it can always get worse.

A woman sued a mortgage lending company for misrepresenting financial issues. She won and was awarded $17,000 in restitution, and her loan obligation of $144,000 was forgiven. But the Ohio circuit court didn’t stop there: It threw in her $600,000 in attorney’s fees and multiplied the sum by three, resulting in a $2.2 million award.

The company correctly objected to paying the attorney’s fees three times over, and appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The court eventually agreed that the $2.2 million had not been calculated properly, and sent the decision back to the Ohio court–where a new judge actually increased the damages awarded to $3.5 million.

The company has appealed again, but perhaps it should quit while it’s behind.

In Florida, insurance companies get scammed: No stranger to crazy news stories, the Sunshine State has its fair share of insane rulings. The climate is ripe for lawsuits alleging that medical insurance companies acted in bad faith when trying to settle claims, even in cases where the companies went to every length to pay up.

Insurance investigators have a short time limit to adjudicate claims, and the burden of settling falls solely on the insurer. This means that even when the company agrees to pay, if it can’t track down the claimant and hand over the check in time, it risks a lawsuit.

After a car accident that left a woman in a coma, the insurance company agreed to pay the woman. But since the woman was in a coma, it didn’t know who should receive her check. After being rebuffed by the woman’s mother, father and friend–and failing to track down the attorney–the company was slapped with a lawsuit. On appeal, a court ruled that the company had acted in bad faith, potentially awarding millions.

Is your salad bar too high? Lawsuit: Also in Florida, small business owners are on the lookout for frivolous lawsuits from paraplegic serial plaintiffs who never wheeled themselves anywhere near the establishments in question.

One restaurateur in Lake Worth, Florida, told local news that he was slapped with a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that his salad bar was too high off the ground for a person in a wheelchair to access it. His parking lot pavement was also accused of not being flat enough.

Check out the full report–which includes lawsuits against Subway for making insufficiently long sandwiches, and Costco for failing to prevent customers from tripping over wooden pallets–here.

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Robby Soave