In America, another lawsuit will be along in a minute

In America, another lawsuit will be along in a minute

According to a report, costs and compensation in the US legal system amounted to $443 billion in 2020 (File/AFP)
According to a report, costs and compensation in the US legal system amounted to $443 billion in 2020 (File/AFP)
Short Url

Americans’ instinctive reaction to anything they do not immediately understand is to shoot it, or sue it.

It is an oft-quoted statistic that there are more firearms in the US than there are people, about 120 for every 100 residents, and their constitutional right to shoot anything that moves is something that most Americans will defend to the death — often their own: more than 40,000 Americans were killed in gun-related incidents in 2023.

A less often quoted number is that there are 1,327,910 lawyers in America, a quarter of them in New York and California, and many of them have expensive country club subscriptions to support. This has contributed to the country’s reputation as one of the most litigious on Earth. According to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, more than 100 million lawsuits are filed in state trial courts every year. It would be fair to say that not all of them are wholly with merit.

Also, unsurprisingly, since the standard single portion of food in the US is enough to feed the average family elsewhere for a week, many worthless lawsuits are comestible-based. The most famous case was probably that of Stella Liebeck, the 79-year-old woman who sued McDonald’s in 1994 because its coffee was hotter than any reasonable person might expect it to be, and was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages — later, admittedly, considerably reduced by mutual agreement.

But she was not alone. Burger King has been sued for selling Whoppers that were not as big as they were in advertising photos, Starbucks was sued for putting too much ice in its drinks and Subway was sued for allegedly having no real tuna in its tuna sandwiches — a case dismissed only after forensic testing by food analysts.

There are 1,327,910 lawyers in America and many of them have expensive country club subscriptions to support

Ross Anderson

Not all frivolous US lawsuits relate to food. Roy Pearson, a judge in Washington, sued a dry-cleaning company in 2005 for losing his trousers. He claimed $1,000 as a refund for the cost of the missing garment — steep, but not unreasonable. He also claimed $15,000 to rent a car every weekend to go to another dry cleaner — a bit of a stretch. But he lost the sympathy of the court when his claim included damages for “mental distress,” taking it to a grand total of $67 million. In addition to losing his trousers, the judge lost the case, and his job, when he was deemed to lack “judicial temperament.”

American lawsuits, whether they have merit or not, are also expensive. According to the most recent figures available, in a report by the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, costs and compensation in the US legal system amounted to $443 billion in 2020, equivalent to 2.1 percent of gross domestic product and $3,621 per American household. As the report’s authors observed: “These figures ... should send a clear signal to policymakers that America’s runaway lawsuit problem urgently needs fixing.”

This is a message that does not seem to have reached either the Anti-Defamation League or the Crowell & Moring law firm, which this week sued Iran, Syria and North Korea in federal court in Washington for providing financial, military and tactical support to Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The lawsuit on behalf of more than 100 victims and relatives of victims of the attack claims $1 billion in compensation and $3 billion in punitive damages.

First, forgive me while I state the obvious, but it cannot be said often enough: the Hamas attack on Israel was a vile and unconscionable atrocity perpetrated against mostly unarmed civilians by a genocidal death cult that could not care less about the wider cause of Palestinian self-determination and statehood, and has done nothing to advance that cause in its miserable, futile 37 years of existence.

But a lawsuit? Seriously?

True, this is not in the realm of McDonald’s coffee or the judge’s missing trousers: people died, it is a serious business. But the lawsuit is no less frivolous for that, and it raises three questions.

I believe the litigants have been blinded by dollar signs, perhaps believing they can purchase a nice little farm in the Negev

Ross Anderson

First, in the event of success, who do the litigants believe will pay? Do they really think that Kim Jong Un, Bashar Assad or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is going to write a check? Perhaps the claimants are banking on the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which Congress created in 2015 to compensate individuals who have won judgments against offending countries. They would be unwise to do so. Thanks to countless similar lawsuits, the fund is now so depleted that no further payments are likely this year, and several congressmen have introduced legislation to augment it. Again, it is unclear where they think the additional funds will come from: perhaps they too believe Kim, Assad or Khamenei will write a check.

Second, if the people at the Anti-Defamation League believe there has been an injustice — and you would have to say they are not wrong — why are they not also suing on behalf of other victims of injustice: for example, the families of nearly 40,000 innocent civilians, mostly women and children, killed during Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza over the past nine months? If Iran, Syria and North Korea deserve to be on the wrong end of a lawsuit, then so too do Israel and its principal armorer, the US. Or does the Anti-Defamation League believe that the loss of innocent Israeli lives merits instructing m’learned friend, while that of innocent Palestinian lives does not?

Finally, what is the actual motivation for this legal action? Nahar Neta, whose American-born mother Adrienne Neta was killed on Oct. 7, said: “While nothing will ever undo the unbearable pain Hamas caused our family or the brutal losses we’ve suffered, we hope this case will bring some sense of justice.” I am sorry for your loss, madam, I genuinely am, but I do not believe a word of that.

I believe the litigants in this case have been blinded by dollar signs, perhaps fondly believing that, with the proceeds, they can purchase a nice little farm in the Negev, assuming they actually know where that is.

I have bad news for them. I am again indebted to the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform for the information that only 53 cents in every dollar paid out in US lawsuits reaches claimants, with the rest going on litigation costs and other expenses.

In other words, even if this absurd claim were to be successful, a significant chunk of the proceeds would flow into the coffers of Messrs. Crowell & Moring, attorneys at law.

  • Ross Anderson is associate editor of Arab News.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view