Neither villains nor victims

Back before the term “frivolous lawsuit” became a popular meme among free-market fundamentalists, I spent a summer working as a paralegal for a Los Angeles corporate law firm. My particular division represented an asbestos manufacturer, and we devoted most of our days to summarizing the depositions of workers suffering from mesothelioma, an untreatable cancer whose symptoms—obstructed breathing, chest pain, death—never struck me as particularly frivolous.

One afternoon, an announcement came over the company PA: A long-awaited decision had just been made against a widow whose case was thought to be precedent-setting. To celebrate, the entire staff would be treated to oysters on the half-shell. I emerged from my cubicle to find the eldest paralegal standing on her desk, cheering.

That scene comes back to me whenever I hear George W. Bush invoking “frivolous asbestos claims” and “junk lawsuits,” as he did again in this year’s State of the Union address. Likewise, those partying attorneys tend to dance through my head whenever another politician or publication insists our courts are overrun with frivolous lawsuits for which there is no current remedy on the books.

But how true is that? A recent study by Public Citizen found that “businesses and their attorneys were 69 percent more likely than individual tort plaintiffs and their attorneys to be sanctioned by federal judges for filing frivolous claims or defenses.” Joan Claybrook, the group’s president, concluded that “corporations think America is too litigious only when they are on the receiving end of a lawsuit.”

In our cover story this week (“Right of passage”), Chrisanne Beckner examines an array of local disability lawsuits and an environment in which businesses have begun to characterize plaintiffs as “accessibility vigilantes.” But what she finds is that the old dichotomies of villains and victims often fail to encompass the complexities of current-day reality. As independent-living specialist Frances Gracechild told Beckner, “There are no monsters in this situation.”