Many of the frivolous suits we cover here on Overlawyered are laugh-out-loud outrageous; but (as the plaintiff’s bar will trumpet in self-defense) these represent only a small fraction of lawsuits. (Of course, even at a small percentage, there’s enough of them for us to blog about them nearly every day.) Most of the suits that make up the “high cost of our legal system” are much more mundane — though not necessarily any less legally ridiculous or less costly. Take a decision handed down last month by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals involving a lawsuit against Nissan. (PDF)
In August 1997 — note the date here — a bunch of high school kids were driving around after school in a 1987 Nissan Sentra. The driver, who may or may not have been “speeding and driving recklessly,” depending on who you believe, lost control of the car. The car flipped over, and one of the passengers, Troy Boss (who, by the way, wasn’t wearing a seat belt), ended up paralyzed.
Thus endeth the tragic story, and thus beginneth Boss’s quest for deep pockets. (Which was also tragic, but only for Boss’s victims.) First, Boss settled his claims against the person actually responsible for the accident — Stacy Harmon, the driver of the car. Then, hunting around, Boss and his attorney decided that the only truly deep pocket they could find was Nissan, which somehow was responsible for a teenager crashing a 10-year old car. So, in February 2002 — five years after the accident — he filed a $50 million suit in Baltimore against Nissan, Jiffy Lube (which had done an oil change on the car), a company called Eberle Enterprises (which had done the state auto inspection when Harmon bought the car), and a woman named Elizabeth Aldridge (who had sold the used car to Harmon several months earlier for $750). The theory that Boss came up with? That Nissan manufactured the car defectively, in such a way that “particles” in the power steering fluid mysteriously jammed the steering mechanism in some way, causing the car to swerve.
But if that was Boss’s theory, you might wonder why Boss sued all those other defendants. What does an oil change have to do with power steering fluid? What does the prior owner of the car have to do with power steering fluid? What does a routine car inspection — which does not, by state law, involve power steering fluid — have to do with anything? The answer to all three questions? Nothing at all. So why were they in the case? One reason, and one reason only: by fraudulently joining them as defendants, Boss hoped to keep the case in state court, to destroy diversity. Under federal law, once the case has been in state court for a year, regardless of how fraudulent the reasons are, the case can’t be removed to federal court — and there was testimony in the case that Boss’s attorney had admitted he was deliberately stalling to get beyond the one year mark.
Ultimately, it took 10 months from the time the suit was filed for these completely innocent — even under the plaintiff’s theory — defendants to find out that Boss’s entire case against them was fictional, and it took another 5 months beyond that for them to entirely extricate themselves from the case.
That just left Nissan. And it only took Nissan two more years — we’re now in May 2005 — to prove why Boss was so desperate to keep the case out of federal court: because the standards for scientific evidence are much higher in federal court. Boss’s experts had a little problem: they had no evidence for their “particle jam” theory. They had no evidence that particle jamming had occurred or how likely it was to occur, or that it would cause the car to behave as it did. In fact, they had to ignore the car driver’s own testimony of what actually happened, and their entire argument was based upon the assumption that a teenage driver’s reckless driving couldn’t explain her car crashing. Oh, and the NHTSA had studied the issue and found that it didn’t exist. Needless to say, the judge wasn’t impressed.
So, after 3 years of litigation, eight years after the accident, the case was over, right? Nope. Boss appealed. He tried to get Jiffy Lube and Eberle back into the case, and tried to get his “expert” testimony admitted. The Circuit Court wasn’t any more impressed than the District Court judge, though. Now, ten years after the accident, five years after the suit was filed, the case might finally be over. But Jiffy Lube, Eberle, and Aldridge spent $10,000-$20,000 on a case that had nothing to do with them, and Nissan spent ten times that. And this was just a routine car crash.