Florida-based attorney John Uustal just announced he is offering up to $100,000 to the first person who comes forward with proof of “a secret conspiracy to create frivolous lawsuits.”
Uustal is a trial lawyer and author, famous for holding massive corporations responsible for their misconduct. The list of corporate titans he has successfully brought to justice includes the likes of Philip Morris, Toyota, and General Motors.
To Cheese or Not to Cheese
Uustal’s initiative was prompted by a recent class action initiative filed in Florida. In what some prominent legal professionals are referring to as “a BS lawsuit,” two McDonald’s customers are accusing the company of illegally charging for cheese.
Suing McDonald’s, “because it charges the same price for a Quarter Pounder with cheese and without cheese,” has made some people wonder whether there might be “a secret plot by big corporations to manufacture dumb lawsuits.”
“I look at some of these lawsuits, and I cannot imagine that they have any chance of success. When they fail, the lawyer will have lost plenty of time and money. Why would any lawyer try to lose money?” Uustal asks.
Considering the contents of the McDonald’s cheese lawsuit, Uustal may be on to something. “Notwithstanding the availability of Quarter Pounders and Double Quarter Pounders, customers have been forced, and continue to be overcharged for these products, by being forced to pay for two slices of cheese, which they do not want, order, or receive, to be able to purchase their desired product,” the complaint says.
The estimated 25 million of potential class members can expect a life-changing bounty if the suit should succeed: $25 if they have proof of purchase and $10 if they don’t.
In fact, according to Google, neither Lavin Law Group, the firm that filed the suit, nor Adler Law Center, which was also involved according to the Orlando Sentinel, have recently filed anything remotely similar to a high profile class action.
A Google news search reveals that the last time either firm was mentioned in the news, it was in connection with Lavin’s representation of a food importer who was involved in litigation against sketchy cargo ship operators - not quite the image of a firm that sues evil corporations for the benefit of consumers.
What We Learnt From ‘Hot Coffee’
This is not the first time a consumer has filed a ‘frivolous’ lawsuit against McDonald’s. When the fast food giant was sued over its excessively hot coffee, which caused a customer serious burns, the suit became the poster child of frivolous lawsuits, mass media turned it into a laughingstock, and it was often cited by advocates of tort reform.
Recently, however, numerous journalists and specialists have argued that the public had completely misunderstood the “hot coffee” lawsuit. According to VOX, “the case wasn’t about greed, but about a working-class woman forcing a big company to make its product safer.”
John Uustal has been talking about this kind of things for years. In a recently released chapter of his upcoming book, “Corporate Serial Killers,” he tells the story of his fight for a woman whose life was destroyed by smoking, and how the system conspired to deprive his ailing client of the money that could have saved her life, through a lung transplant she was never able to afford:
“[The jury] awarded compensatory damages totaling $56 million, and punitive damages of $244 million. The total amount of $300 million sounded excessive to some, but as an economist testified during trial... one tobacco company subsidiary alone made $10 million a day in excess free cash. That means that after all the money is used for expenses and operations and attorneys and lawsuits and advertising... and taxes and insane payouts to the executives and the CEO bonus plan and everything else... they still have an additional $10 million a day to kick up to the parent company. That’s billions of dollars a year. It’s just a little excess free cash.”
Though Uustal is speaking of tobacco companies, the same logic can be applied to any large corporation. Uustal concludes that, “As long as Big Tobacco has this kind of money, they will spend a little bit of it defending themselves in the aggressive and abusive way that they’ve pioneered. Their victims, on the other hand, run out of money or die before justice is served. In fact, this is Big Tobacco’s strategy and goal.”
When people talk about the $500,000 the hot coffee plaintiff ended up receiving from McDonald’s, they are thinking about what that amount of cash means in their own everyday life. Tort reform advocates know that, and they keep trying to hit that nerve.
But, as Uustal eloquently explains, for some companies, being forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars falls short of acting as a deterrent. They are not going to stop endangering consumers in the interest of profits just because they have to shell out the excess cash they make in a couple of days.
While some politicians with a vested interest may want you to believe that certain lawsuits against large corporations are frivolous, that the rewards should be capped or punitive damages eliminated, as long as such companies know that settlements and verdicts will be within a range that does not represent a significant risk, they are rarely going to change their behavior or put the consumer’s interest first.
With politician campaigns heavily backed by some of America’s most wealthy corporations, the drive for tort reform and the demonization of lawyers will likely continue.
Who Is Ruining America?
As Uustal tries to find the truth, corporations capitalize on the new lawsuit to fuel their crusade for tort reform.
So far, the loudest voice in reference to the ‘frivolous’ suit has been that of Michael Snyder, whose article “More Evidence That Lawyers Are Ruining America–You Won’t Believe What McDonald’s Is Being Sued For Now,” is ubiquitous on the web right now (found on over 5,000 websites, to be exact).
In his opinion piece, published on his Economic Collapse blog, Snyder did not conceal his motives, namely, advocating tort reform. “Every nation needs a legal system, and we do too. But today our system is in desperate need of reform. There are way too many lawyers, way too many lawsuits, and our entire society is rapidly becoming paralyzed by the misuse of legal power,” he wrote.
Unsurprisingly, Snyder himself just ran for Congress in Idaho. One Internet user said, commenting on his shock-piece about the lawsuit against McDonald’s, “To make a big deal about this, based on the complaint, is the work of an ignoramus or a panderer.
That, in this case that's a candidate for Congress is scary. Then again, it's not like one has to be smart to be a partisan goose stepper.”
Apparently, Uustal is not alone. Another visitor of Synder’s blog argued that the lawsuit against McDonald’s is an “effort to protect consumers with very little probability of recouping any of [the attorneys’] investment in time... I submit the person that wrote this article is probably being paid by large corporations who have a vested interest in seeing there are no further consumer protection laws created.”
Whether the lawsuit is part of a conspiracy or it is being exploited to advance the cause of tort reform at the expense of consumer protections, the current scenario is certainly bad news for whistleblowers and their advocates.
If you have a tip about a conspiracy to fabricate ‘frivolous’ lawsuits, Uustal wants to hear from you.