Frivolous? Facts v. Fiction – Part II

March 4, 2015 | By R. Brendan Dummigan of Pickett Dummigan LLP


By Ron K. Cheng

product liabilitySome lawsuits are so sensational that they have become mythic in proportion. These lawsuits are often misconstrued and distorted by tort reformers to show how the court system is being abused. Reality however, tends to tell a different story. These so-called “frivolous lawsuits” may not be so frivolous after all.

A famous products liability case that many people have heard about is the story of an injured man who sued a ladder company for not having a warning label about placing ladders on frozen surfaces. This story was so outrageous that 60 Minutes (A CBS News Program) aired an episode in 1986 featuring the ladder makers.

Supposedly, a man was working on his barn when he placed a ladder on frozen horse manure. As the day warmed up and the manure began to melt, the ladder became unstable and the man fell off. A lawsuit was brought against the ladder company because they should have put a warning label on the ladder about the dangers of placing ladders on frozen manure. The man won more than a quarter million dollars. The ladder industry was outraged and some manufacturers even claimed that they won’t make new ladder designs because they were afraid of frivolous lawsuits.

This story is a clear example of how the truth can get twisted when political agendas get involved. Around the time that the lawsuit was popularized by politicians and lobbyists, there was a movement by big businesses to minimize jury awards so they can pay less for dangerous defects found in their products. It took years before people started realizing that something didn’t smell right and discovered that the ladder company’s version of the story on 60 Minutes was horse$#!+.

The true story behind the ladder case had very little to do with manure. What actually happened was that the ladder broke while the man was standing on it. The ladder’s warning labels had stated that it could withstand 1,000 lbs of pressure. However, it broke with less than 450 lbs of weight and the man climbing it was severely hurt. This is exactly the type of situation you’re supposed to sue for!

60 Minutes never issued a correction when the real story was exposed.

Working on a ladder is dangerous enough and people climbing ladders need to act responsibly. A person who does everything right should not be ridiculed for filing a lawsuit when a ladder advertised as being sturdy collapses with less than half of its capacity. Ladder companies know that when their products fail, serious injury can occur. In many cases, the people who are injured by ladders are workers who depend on their physical wellbeing to make a living. It’s no surprise that a potentially career and life ending injury can result in a massive jury verdict.

Now that you know the facts from the fiction, we’ll let you decide if this lawsuit is as frivolous as tort reformers want you to believe.

*Missed Part 1 of this series? Click HERE.

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