Slugging It Out In Court, the American Way : Litigation: Public complaints about too many lawsuits are said to be related to rise in claims against Establishment.


Self-styled psychic Uri Geller’s claim that he could perform supernatural feats, such as bending a spoon with brain power, was disputed by magician James Randi.

So Geller did what millions of Americans do every year--he filed a lawsuit.

Slugging it out in court is the American way, but critics of that way, led by Vice President Dan Quayle, say things have gone out of control. Too many attorneys and lawsuits are harming U.S. competitiveness in the world market, says Quayle, himself a lawyer.

Walter K. Olson, author of “The Litigation Explosion,” agreed. “Our legal system has been set up to encourage litigation and it has been a great disaster,” he said.

That’s bunk, say the legal industry and others who accuse the Bush Administration of fudging numbers.


“There’s no litigation explosion,” said consumer activist Ralph Nader. “We used to litigate more in 1830, per capita, than we do now. . . . (Quayle) is only against lawyers who represent victims. Isn’t that strange?”

The National Center for State Courts counted 18.3 million civil suits filed in state courts in 1990, following a steady rise from 13.5 million cases in 1984. That’s about a 25% increase while the U.S. population was growing by about 5.5 %

The story is different in federal courts, where far fewer cases are filed. Federal figures show the number of new cases peaked in 1985 at 273,670 and fell steadily to 207,742 in 1991. Experts attribute the fall to a sharp drop in lawsuits over veterans’ benefits, Social Security benefits and defaulted student loans.

Suits range from divorces and personal injury cases to the still-running 1973 sex discrimination lawsuit of 67 female Navy employees.

And Geller’s $15-million damage suit alleging that he was libeled by Randi. “I’m angered and I’m hurt,” Geller said when the civil suit was filed nearly a year ago. The case is pending.

Marc Galanter, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Legal Studies, said much of the chagrin over the rising number of lawsuits is that doctors, manufacturers and university administrators are being sued. “For the first time, there’s a significant amount of litigation that does challenge the established authorities of society, and these people are very annoyed,” he said.

The Bush Administration last month proposed legislation intended to “stop America’s love affair with the lawsuit.” Among other things, it would boost alternatives such as arbitration, require the losers in some federal suits to pay the winner’s court and legal fees, and require advance notice to defendants, to encourage out-of-court settlements.

Talbot D’Alemberte, president of the American Bar Assn., said his group has been pushing for federal money for alternative dispute resolution since legislation was passed in 1980.

He also disputed the Administration’s contention that the United States has 70% of the world’s lawyers.

“That’s simply made up,” said D’Alemberte, citing a University of Wisconsin study that put the figure at 25% to 35%, approximately the U.S. share of the world’s gross national product.

The American Bar Foundation said there were 723,189 lawyers in the United States in 1988, almost three-fourths of them in private practice. There was one lawyer for every 340 Americans in 1988, almost double the 1951 ratio.

As for the propensity of Americans to file suit, government figures show that the number of federal product liability lawsuits, excluding asbestos cases, dropped by 36% from 1985 to 1991. Civil rights cases have leveled off since 1985; prisoner lawsuits continue to rise.

Lawsuits related to schooling--desegregation, special education, students’ and teachers’ rights--dropped sharply in federal courts during the 1980s and almost leveled off in state courts, said Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

A more conservative federal judiciary is discouraging school-related lawsuits, Zirkel said.

D’Alemberte and Nader contend the fastest-growing category of litigation is the corporation vs. corporation lawsuit.

Much of the problem, said Martin Connor, president of the American Tort Reform Assn., is that lawyers wind up with too much of the money spent on civil suits. A Rand Corp. study found that litigation costs soaked up about half of the damage awards in injury lawsuits decided in 1985.

Connor said his group wants some type of control on punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoing by a defendant.