The Lawn Mower Guy and Other Legal Myths in the Tort Reform Movement

Published 1/30/2005

By Jonathan Turley
Have you heard about the guy who injured himself while using his lawn mower as a hedge clipper, and then won $500,000 in a lawsuit against the lawn mower company? How about the woman who threw a soft drink at her boyfriend, slipped on the wet floor, and then won $100,000 in a lawsuit against the restaurant? These are only two of the common examples of lawsuit abuses that are fueling the call for “litigation reform.” They are also completely untrue — part of a growing collection of legal mythologies that are appearing widely in the national media.
Image is everything in tort reform, such as President Bush’s visit earlier this month to a “judicial hellhole” in Illinois where tort cases supposedly flourish. He has made tort reform a priority of his second term and is expected to repeat these calls in his State of the Union address Wednesday. It is all part of a well-funded campaign to limit damages against companies and physicians across the country.

Horror stories offered by industry groups play to a weakness in the media for “you-are-not-going-to-believe-this” stories. Of course, it is not surprising that the stories are unbelievable — because many never occurred.

Take the ubiquitous hedge-clipper man story. It has appeared in print, on TV programs, in law school classrooms and in political speeches for decades. Former vice president Dan Quayle used it in his call for reform (though he reportedly referred to the man cutting his hair with a lawn mower). In reality, the story originated in an ad campaign by the insurance firm Crum & Forester, which later admitted that it knew of no such case. Yet, proving that facts should never stand in the way of a good story, it remains perhaps the most cited example of abuse — the best $500,000 that the insurance industry never paid.

Bad lawyering

Even true stories often prove not to be examples of bad law, but bad lawyering. Take the list of the “wackiest consumer warnings,” released this month by the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch to show the need for reform. Included are such things as a warning on a toilet brush that reads, “Do Not Use for Personal Hygiene” or a sign on a scooter that reads, “This product moves when used.” These are not fabrications, but none of these warnings make any more legal sense than they do practical sense. No company has to warn consumers not to use a toilet brush on their teeth or hair.

Legal legends can be irresistible, even for the most respected newspapers, magazines and networks.

U.S. News & World Reportowner Mort Zuckerman used the story of the soft drink lady in Pennsylvania in an article denouncing lawsuit abuse. He is not alone. The tale of Amber Carlson and her soda has appeared in countless television and print sources. Zuckerman also cited the case of a woman who knocked her teeth out while sneaking through a nightclub’s restroom window to avoid paying a $3.50 cover charge — and then won $12,000 from a jury. It is also false.

Both stories have been attributed to the Stella Awards, an annual listing of loony lawsuits. But the Stella Web site points out that they both are complete fabrications. Yet they continue to appear in print and on the Internet.

Other examples of fabricated “true cases of lawsuit abuse”:

• Kathleen Robertson of Austin received $780,000 from a jury after she tripped over her own son in a furniture store.

• Carl Truman, a 19-year-old in Los Angeles, was awarded more than $74,000 when his hand was run over by a neighbor. The neighbor did not see Truman, who was in the process of stealing his hubcaps.

• Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pa., was given a $500,000 award after he was inadvertently trapped in the garage of a house that he was burglarizing.

• A Mr. Grazinski won more than $1,750,000 and a new Winnebago after he put his new motor home on cruise control at 70 mph and then went into the back to fix himself some coffee — only to crash on the highway.

Merely legal legends

These are the legal versions of the urban legends about alligators living in the New York City sewers. Everyone knows that alligators brought back by kids as pets from Florida have been flushed down the toilets, only to thrive below the streets of New York City.

Legal legends fit the stereotype of litigation so well that their falsity becomes secondary. Of course, law is not alone in such fabrications. Consider my favorite story about Pia Zadora’s dismal performance as the lead in The Diary of Anne Frank. Zadora was so bad that, during the scene where Nazis break into the house screaming, “Where is Anne Frank?” audience members screamed, “She’s in the attic!” It is a brilliant story, but I was crushed to learn recently that it is also completely untrue: Zadora has never played Anne Frank, and there is no such scene in the play.

I loved the Zadora story for the same reason people such as Zuckerman loved the fabricated lawsuit stories: They capture a critical idea with an element of humor or absurdity. There is, however, a great difference between using urban legends to dish on some actress and using them to make massive changes in the law. So, as we begin this latest debate over tort reform, one small piece of advice: If you hear about a case that is almost too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and has testified before Congress on tort reform. He is also a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

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