'That is what is wrong with our legal system — even if you win, you lose.' Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s Bob Dorigo Jones Talks About Legal Reform and Wacky Warning Labels

On the radio program “Your Turn — Meeting Nonsense with Common Sense,” the Center’s Corporate Counsel, Renee Giachino, recently interviewed the President of Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, Bob Dorigo Jones, about his organization, national efforts at legal reform and the “Wacky Warning Label” contest.

What follows are excerpts from the interview.

GIACHINO:  My next guest, Bob Dorigo Jones, joins us from Michigan.  He is president of M-Law.  Are you there Bob?

DORIGO JONES:  I am here.

GIACHINO:  Thank you so much for coming on the program.  We appreciate it.  Can you tell us about your organization?

DORIGO JONES:  We call ourselves M-LAW for short — it stands for Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch.  We are a grassroots organization based in Detroit, Michigan and aimed at increasing public awareness of all the different ways that our families, communities and job-providers pay for living in the most lawsuit-happy society on earth.  Every year we do a number of projects that are geared to getting this issue in the media so that people think about this and think about solutions to it.  Your listeners might have heard of one of our most popular projects which is the “Wacky Warning Label” Contest.  We were featured on Good Morning America, Reader’s Digest and NBC Nightly News, as well as a lot of other places.

GIACHINO:  That’s right.  I understand that you publish a compilation of wacky warning labels and give awards out each year.  This is your seventh or eighth year of doing this, right?

DORIGO JONES:  Right, this is our eighth year.  We do this because one of our goals is to highlight all the different ways that people pay and how life has changed because of these lawsuits.  There used to be a time in America where if you spilled hot coffee on yourself you called yourself “clumsy,”  unfortunately, more and more these days people are calling themselves an attorney.  That’s why we started “wacky warning labels.”  We have a little fun at the expense of people who file these frivolous lawsuits.  That’s also why we highlight these wacky warning labels.

GIACHINO:  Can you give us some of the best examples from this year’s winners?

DORIGO JONES:  Here’s one.  This is a scooter one — like those silver little scooters that kids use all over the country.  If you look closely at the handlebar it carries a warning that says this: “Warning.  This product moves when used.”  Imagine that!

GIACHINO:  Unbelievable.

DORIGO JONES:  Well anybody who makes a product in America these days knows that they are a potential target for a lawsuit.

GIACHINO:  So what do they have to do, go out and hire the biggest idiot they can find and ask them to show them how they should or should not use a product?  How do you even know the absurd uses that someone is going to make with a product?  There was one that was on your website — and I hope this is not too graphic for the listeners, about a plunger.  Was it a plunger?

DORIGO JONES:  Oh, that’s the toilet brush.  It warns: “Do not use for personal hygiene.”

GIACHINO:  It’s a toilet brush!

DORIGO JONES:  That’s right.  You have to think of every which way that a product could be misused.

GIACHINO:  Wait a minute.  I want to stop you, Bob.  Does it really say that on the toilet brush?

DORIGO JONES:  Yes, it does.  We actually have to verify each one.  We either get the product or make them send us a picture of the product warning label.  We have to do that because there are so many urban legends out there.  NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw did a report one year and found that a manufacturer of basketball nets had been sued by a guy who was playing basketball and dunked the ball and somehow caught his teeth in the net and he sued the net makers.  He said it should have had a warning label that said: “Do not use for flossing.”

GIACHINO:  How can you even anticipate what could happen?  I would hope that a judge would throw that case out.  First of all, the whole idea of contributory negligence just no longer exists in America anymore, am I right about that?

DORIGO JONES:  Well, right.  We are bringing it back in some states.  I am happy to say that since our group was formed in Michigan and we had a governor who had some common sense tort reform — legal reform — that we had some reduction in lawsuits.  So that is the silver lining or the light at the end of the tunnel, when people come together and say “we are not going to take it any more.”  And that is what we did.

It does come down to judges.  Because when you are sued, the judge plays God.  It depends, unfortunately, where you are sued sometimes — whether you are sued in Detroit or Pensacola or Miami or wherever.  It depends on what judge you get, what jury you get and the luck of the draw.

GIACHINO:  So is your organization involved at all in the wonderful effort — I know my organization is behind the effort — to try to get judges nominated and appointed to the bench who are going to not legislate from the bench but rather take on their constitutional duty, which is to interpret the laws and not make them?

DORIGO JONES:  Yes, absolutely we are.  We have done judicial evaluations, because you know most of us will know who our governor is and maybe some of us know who are U.S. Senators are, but very few of us can name a justice on our own state supreme court.

GIACHINO:  Do you vote for them in Michigan?

DORIGO JONES:  We do here.  And in many states they are both appointed by the governor and then run for re-election, and so in many states people have a say.  And we encourage them, if they do, to get to know their justices.  We rate them so that people can see which justices have a better track record of throwing out those frivolous cases and taking a tough stance because it really does matter.

GIACHINO:  How much from a numerical standpoint — if you have these numbers available, how much are these frivolous lawsuits costing the average American family?

DORIGO JONES:  There have been studies that have been done.  The White House Council of Economic Advisors did a study of this a couple of years ago and found that it costs the average person about $600 a year in a lawsuit abuse tax.  That’s what we term it.  So everything you buy from groceries to insurance to automobiles to you name it costs more because the companies that make these things are sued.

We all know, or should know about the impact it has had on medical care.  Not only is the availability of doctors for our families declining but the cost of medical care is rising because of frivolous lawsuits.  So it has a real financial impact on our wallets and that’s why groups like M-LAW exist.

For so many years the trial lawyers [organization] — which is so big now, really a huge force in American politics, in fact it has been named “Trial Lawyers, Inc.” — [has controlled the message so] that we need to balance it out and bring more fairness and predictability back to the courts.  With public education we think there is hope to do that.  That is why we like to do projects like the “Wacky Warning Labels” and use that as a platform for talking about tort reform. 

For example, here in Detroit would you believe the Girl Scouts have to sell 36,000 boxes of cookies every year to pay for liability insurance in case they are sued?

GIACHINO:  That is unbelievable.  In case they are sued — they have not been sued yet, but this is just in case they are sued.  Give us an example of what they might be sued for.  What would be one of their wacky lawsuits?

DORIGO JONES:  You know you have to stretch to the limits of your imagination to think of it.  For instance, they might give something away as a prize in something and if somebody gets injured they might be sued.  That has happened.  Or somebody goes to a camp and falls off a horse.  It could be related to the cookies, too — we have seen crazy lawsuits. 

I will give you an example of one in Florida.  There was a fellow who has a food bank and feeds poor people.  It is called “Love Thy Neighbor.”  And he was sued by a woman in the Detroit area who makes jewelry and it is called “Love Your Neighbor.”  She sued this poor guy down in Florida for using a name that she had trademarked, and he had to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending himself against this lawsuit.  That is money that could have been used to feed poor people.

GIACHINO:  That is sad.  If you don’t mind, we have a call.  Go ahead caller, it’s your turn.

CALLER:  How about “loser pays”?  What do you think about “loser pays”?  I think we could get rid of a bunch of these frivolous lawsuits, do you agree?

DORIGO JONES:  Right.  There is a lot of support and that support is growing for “loser pays.”  There is some question and a lot of debate about whether it is politically possible to do that.  I will tell you that in many states there is already a “loser pays” system.  This is a surprise to many people but there is a “loser pays” system for the cases that we are most concerned about anyway — and those are the lawsuits that are termed frivolous.

CALLER:  I am all for it.  I hope that Florida passes that law here.  You know common sense is an uncommon virtue and it just amazes me in the public out here what goes on in our court system — the backlog and how anybody can sue anybody and they walk away.  If they lose, they say they tried and walk away and nothing happens.

DORIGO JONES:  That’s right.  Our legal system virtually allows legalized extortion.

CALLER:  That’s correct.

GIACHINO:  I think even worse yet is that these people who lose don’t just walk away, rather if they lose they just go look for the next deep pocket.

DORIGO JONES:  Here is a good example of that.  Everybody in America has heard about the spilled coffee lawsuit against McDonald’s, right?  Well how about the spilled milkshake lawsuit?  Somebody went through a drive-through at McDonald’s and bought fries and a milkshake.  They put the fries next to them and put the milkshake between their legs.  At a stop sign, the guy reached over to get some fries and the milkshake popped out, he was startled and gunned the accelerator and hit the car in front of him.  Guess who the guy in front of him sues?  McDonald’s!  He claims that McDonald’s should have warned this guy about carrying his milkshake between his legs. 

Here is why I bring this up.  McDonald’s did what it should have done in this case — they asked the judge to fine the person and make him pay for their legal fees when McDonald’s won.  Well, the judge said you can’t blame somebody for being creative. 

That is what is wrong with our judicial system – judges are too reluctant to use the tools that they already have at their disposal to penalize people who bring frivolous lawsuits.

CALLER:  One other point then.  You know down here in Florida on the ballot the judges get away with murder because of the way it is worded.  It says “should you retain judge so-and-so.”  There is nothing in between.  It is just “retain.”  Isn’t that cute?

DORIGO JONES:  Well, that is built in protection for the incumbent.  I know you have a problem in Florida because I have seen the studies that show that lawsuit abuse has not been addressed there like it has been in other states.  I would encourage people to make this an issue.  I think you have a governor who is probably supportive of legal reform, and you need a legislature and supreme court that will do the right thing.

CALLER:  We’ll see if that’s politically correct.  Thank you.

GIACHINO:  Does your organization have a website that the listeners can visit to learn more about the wacky warning labels?

DORIGO JONES:  Yes, we have two.  The first is wackywarnings.com.  We have had 3.5 million hits to that since we announced the results about three weeks ago.  The warnings that you will see on there will leave you wondering whether you should laugh or cry.  It’s funny when you see a warning label on an aim-and-flame lighter that you use maybe to light your fireplace.  It says, “Warning: Do not use near fire or flame.” 

The other one is mlaw.org.  And the wacky warnings site has a link to that.  It shows some of the other projects that we do besides the wacky warning labels — which has been such a good platform for us to branch out into other areas.  It has been on John Stossel’s program on 20/20 three times, it has been on Paul Harvey and in Reader’s Digest.  It is something that is fun to talk about but it has a serious side.  People like to talk about the issue and how we can bring some sanity back to the legal system. 

GIACHINO:  How can we?  What can the average American do to get us away from these frivolous lawsuits that are costing each of us hundreds of dollars?  Whether you sue or you use the product or not, there is some direct or indirect expense to every American?

DORIGO JONES:  Well, you know that brings up a real good point about how we get involved.  There was just a project launched by Michigan’s former governor — and we are based in Michigan, but it is by John Engler of the National Association of Manufacturers — and the project is called the American Justice Partnership.  They talk about how we need to work together around the country to increase awareness of ways that we pay for frivolous lawsuits and how we can get involved in solutions.  And I think the solutions are pretty straight forward — it just takes organization and people prioritizing them.

You should serve on juries.  If you are ever sued and the case goes to a jury you are going to hope that people are on the jury who understand the ramifications of their verdicts.  Perhaps someone is hurt, is it worth $10,000 or $10 million?  Today in our jackpot justice type of system sometimes a legitimate lawsuit becomes an example of abuse because juries just pull numbers out of the air.

Another big solution is judges.  Whether you vote for judges at the local level or supreme court level they have a tremendous impact on the types of lawsuits that you will see.  In Michigan we used to see all sorts of crazy lawsuits.  For example, there was a guy who forged his signature so he could fool his local pharmacist to give him medicine that he should not have.  Well after he finally got hooked on those drugs he sued his pharmacist and got a million dollars. 

Of course our courts are filled with lawsuits like that.  Well, now we have a supreme court here in Michigan that views things differently.  That’s because some people came together and showed the public how much people were paying for these lawsuits.  We showed which ones voted for these and which against.  Well, we increased voter turn-out and after that election they elected the first pro-reform court in 40 years.

So what we need is voting, participation on juries and electing good leaders who will make legal reform a priority, whether it’s the governor, or the President — you know we see President Bush talking a lot about this now and I think it is further recognition of how bad the problem has become.  The President has made this one of his top two priorities with Social Security.  He always talks about legal reform.  We need to get engaged as citizens and let our elected officials know that we are not going to take it any more.

GIACHINO:  As you mentioned, you are in Michigan and you also mentioned that under former Governor John Engler, who is now with NAM, that he was a real leader in state legal reform.  What kinds of positive changes were made in the Michigan legal reform arena under his tutelage?  Has it changed since he left office?

DORIGO JONES:  I will tell you that it has not changed.  We have been fortunate that all of the laws that were passed have been held up by the courts that are interpreting the laws as they should be, and not re-writing the laws. 

We passed a law, for example, that eliminated a legal term called joint-and-several liability.  That means that if you are one of say four parties sued and all the other parties went out of business but you are only 1% responsible for all of the damages that happened, you would be 100% responsible to pay for all of the financial burden.  That is joint-and-several liability.  That is patently unfair. 

As a matter of fact, at one time Disney World was sued under the joint-and-several liability law and was found to be exactly 1% at fault, but because everyone else was bankrupt or out of business Disney got hit with all of it and had to pay out over $100,000.  That just flies in the face of what we as Americans mean by justice.  Because somebody wants to go after somebody’s deep pockets they will toss aside important values like fairness and allow the courts to reward people and to hold others accountable when they should not be.

So we eliminated that law and brought back comparative negligence and put caps on medical liability lawsuits only in the areas of pain and suffering.  That is something hard to quantify.  So we say the person injured in a medical liability lawsuit will receive all the medical care they will need for the rest of their life and be reimbursed for all of the wages they have lost, but when it comes to awarding pain and suffering damages we are going to put a cap on that.  That has brought some predictability back to the courts, which has in turn made it possible for doctors to continue to practice here.  Before that their insurance premiums were going so sky high.  In fact, the doctor who delivered my two younger sisters decided to end his practice because it got too expensive.  We don’t want doctors who have gone to school to protect our families and help our families come into the world going out of business because of high liability costs.

GIACHINO:  I agree.  And for every lawsuit that you read about that has been taken through the court system, there are how many more that have been settled?  I’m right, aren’t I, that more settle?

DORIGO JONES:  Yes, and that is a huge problem.  Believe it or not 9 out of 10 cases brought to our court system are settled.  A lot of people may have believed, like I did before I got involved in this whole issue, that a lot of people settle them because they are guilty and just want to get out of it before a jury brings down an even bigger award.  But what I have found is that very often in most cases they are not guilty and they are just settling to end the litigation nightmare that they are forced to endure to defend their own good name.  We have had people call us from all over the country saying they are a retiree couple who bought a small house or apartment to rent out to somebody and they were sued because the tenant didn’t like a $10 a month rent increase.  They had to defend themselves all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and spend their life savings and every judge that saw it threw it out.  That is what is wrong with our legal system — even if you win, you lose.

Like we talked about earlier, we have this form of legalized extortion in America where too many trial lawyers know that if you sue somebody they will have to spend thousands of dollars to defend themselves so very often they will say, or the insurance company will say, let’s just settle.  So it has become a scam that is costing you and me and all consumers — because the business does not just take it out of the bottom line, it does get passed on to consumers, otherwise no one could stay in business.

GIACHINO:  And the whole copycat thing.  Have businesses in some respect perpetuated the problem?  I mean do they say let’s just settle this because it may be the least costly way to resolve it — they may pay more in attorney’s fees to take it through the courts than to just settle the case?  So in some way, and I know this is an unpopular thought, perhaps the businesses have perpetuated this problem.  Have they caught on to that and do you think they will finally say “we are tired of the copycats and we are tired of settling these things and let’s just take one to fruition and pay the high attorney’s fees but get some justice”?

DORIGO JONES:  We have seen that here.  More and more companies are willing to take a gamble.  And believe me it is a huge gamble.  They can take it all the way through the courts and still lose.  I think until companies start doing that and forcing the issue — forcing judges and juries to do the right thing rather than settling you won’t see a real clamp down on the problem.  So that is a real part of the solution — they need to fight these.

GIACHINO:  Bob, we have to take a break.  It has been wonderful talking with you.  Bob Dorigo Jones, President of M-LAW.  Visit wackywarnings.com to learn more about the organization or visit mlaw.org.  Thank you again Bob, we appreciate your time.

DORIGO JONES:  Thank you.

February 10 , 2005
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