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Monday, August 15, 2005

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds; or, Why Are We in Iraq? 

Courtesy of our distinguished colleague Susie Madrak at Suburban Guerrilla, an L.A. Times article for those of us who felt like banging our heads on the coffee table during the 2004 presidential debates when John Kerry, plainly embarrassed by the presence of a lawyer on the ticket, launched into his brief, bizarre fantasia on the urgent need for tort reform:
Merv Grazinski set his Winnebago on cruise control, slid away from the wheel and went back to fix a cup of coffee.

You can guess what happened next: The rudderless, driverless Winnebago crashed.

Grazinski blamed the manufacturer for not warning against such a maneuver in the owner's manual. He sued and won $1.75 million.

His jackpot would seem to erase any doubt that the legal system has lost its mind. Indeed, the Grazinski case has been cited often as evidence of the need to limit lawsuits and jury awards.

There's just one problem: The story is a complete fabrication.

It is one of the more comical tales in an anthology of legal urban legends that have circulated widely on the Internet, regaling millions with examples of cluelessness and greed being richly rewarded by the courts. These fables have also been widely disseminated by columnists and pundits who, in their haste to expose the gullibility of juries, did not verify the stories and were taken in themselves.

Although the origins of the tales are unknown, some observers, including George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, say their wide acceptance has helped to rally public opinion behind business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system by restricting some types of lawsuits and capping damage awards.

"I am astonished how successful these urban legends have been in influencing policy," Turley said. "The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill."

The tales are making the rounds at a time when business lobbyists and conservative politicians seem to have gained the upper hand in their drive to rein in lawsuits — a campaign that they call tort reform but that trial lawyers and consumer groups say is an assault on the legal rights of ordinary people . . . .

Besides the Grazinski saga, there's the mythical case of Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pa., who got into an argument with her boyfriend in a restaurant, threw a drink at him and then broke her tailbone when she slipped on the wet spot on the floor. Naturally, Carson sued — and won $113,500.

Then there's Kara Walton, a Delaware woman so eager to avoid a $3.50 cover charge that she tried sneaking into a nightclub through a bathroom window but fell and lost a couple of teeth. Walton sued and won $12,000 plus payment of dental bills.

A database search shows the Grazinski, Carson and Walton tales have been cited as true by a wide range of media outlets, including CNN; U.S. News & World Report; the American Spectator; the Oakland Tribune; the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram; the Deseret News of Salt Lake City; the Akron Beacon-Journal; the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record; and the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle.

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