Frivolous Lawsuits in Today’s Judicial System

Discussing the differences between frivolous and civil lawsuits

Based on what we see on the news, it seems like people are suing each other left and right for the most absurd reasons.

Examples include: (1) Robbers filing suit homeowners for injuries that occurred while they committed theft, (2) drinkers suing breweries for their hangover and (3) prison inmates asking the state for compensation while serving prison sentences—these are real-life examples of frivolous lawsuits that happen in our world today.

But not all of these seemingly ridiculous lawsuits are what they seem. In fact, the line between frivolous and civil lawsuits can be quite thin, so what exactly is the difference between a frivolous and civil lawsuit, and how can you make sure your personal injury case gets the attention in court it deserves?

What is a Frivolous Lawsuit?

By definition, a frivolous lawsuit is a claim “filed by a party or attorney who is aware they are without merit, because of a lack of supporting legal argument or factual basis for the claims.”

Frivolous lawsuits waste time, money, and judicial resources, and penalties can be enacted on parties guilty of committing frivolous claims. Additionally, these impractical cases make corporations nervous and can cause an increase in service prices to cover intensified legal risks.

In contrast, a legal claim of dispute between private parties—persons or organizations—is known as a personal injury or civil lawsuit. These cases submit a valid legal argument for the plaintiff, and uses facts and evidence to support their claim. Civil cases, like frivolous lawsuits, also generally seek monetary compensation.

Cases of Frivolous Lawsuits

Most courtrooms can spot the differences between a civil and frivolous lawsuit from a mile away, and they quickly dispel them before it becomes a serious case, but some frivolous cases brought to court do occasionally slip through the net.

For example, in 1992, the Norman family sued Honda for compensation of the death of their daughter Karen. The teenager drowned when she backed into Galveston Bay (Texas) while driving drunk and was unable to unbuckle her seatbelt, according to the passenger who made it out alive.

The court awarded the Norman family $65 million for Karen’s death, even though her blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. The case was quickly appealed and tossed out later on.

The McDonalds coffee case is another example of a frivolous lawsuit that’s frequently cited. Again in 1992, plaintiff Stella Liebeck filed a lawsuit against McDonalds for monetary compensation for second-degree burns she received when she spilled the 180-degree coffee on her lap. Even more astonishing was that she won, and won big—$2.7 million in damages.

As you may remember, McDonalds got the settlement reduced to $640,000, but what you may not know is that originally Liebeck only sought $20,000 in compensation—just enough to cover medical expenses. The coffee was 40 degrees hotter than a coffee machine at home would typically be.

The media portrayed Liebeck as a money-grubbing customer simply trying to siphon a large company’s wealth, but in fact she only asked for reimbursement for her injuries. The additional compensation was offered by McDonalds and ultimately demanded by the jurors, not Liebeck.

Whether the Norman vs. Honda or Liebeck vs. McDonalds cases were frivolous or not are debatable, but they certainly show us that many cases which appear frivolous at first may have some validity in court – it also shows that these cases aren’t so cut and dry most of the time.

Frivolous Lawsuits today

The reality is most civil lawsuits today are not frivolous.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of Americans that are injured by medical malpractice, less than 10% file lawsuits. From 1995-2005, personal injury lawsuits decreased by 21%, despite a growing population in 30 states. This data tells us that people are not rushing to make frivolous charges as is often portrayed in the media.

In addition, the judicial system has laws in place to ward off frivolous lawsuits. These laws allow a judge to dismiss a case deemed frivolous before the trial even takes place, and lawyers can be sanctioned for frivolous claims and even be charged with a felony.


Many lawyers argue that the “crises” of frivolous lawsuit in the American judicial system ended years ago, which is why a minor case in 1992, over two decades ago, is the only case that ever gets used as an example of frivolous lawsuits.

In short, sure some frivolous cases have slipped through the net in the past and wasted court resources, but despite first appearances, in today’s judicial system most cases are civil and need proper representation in court.

To ask if your personal injury claim qualifies as a civil case, contact our Denver personal injury law firm today for a free consultation.

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