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The Myth of the Litigious Society

Why We Don’t Sue

Why do Americans seem to sue at the slightest provocation? The answer may surprise you: we don’t! For every “Whiplash Charlie” who sees a car accident as a chance to make millions, for every McDonald’s customer to pursue a claim over a too-hot cup of coffee, many more Americans suffer injuries but make no claims against those responsible or their insurance companies. The question is not why Americans sue but why we don’t sue more often, and the answer can be found in how we think about injury and personal responsibility.
With this book, David M. Engel demolishes the myth that America is a litigious society. The sobering reality is that the vast majority of injury victims—more than nine out of ten—rely on their own resources, family and friends, and government programs to cover their losses. When real people experience serious injuries, they don’t respond as rational actors. Trauma and pain disrupt their thoughts, and potential claims are discouraged by negative stereotypes that pervade American television and popular culture. (Think Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, who keeps a box of neck braces in his office to help clients exaggerate their injuries.) Cultural norms make preventable injuries appear inevitable—or the victim’s fault. We’re taught to accept setbacks stoically and not blame someone else. But this tendency to “lump it” doesn’t just hurt the victims; it hurts us all. As politicians continue to push reforms that miss the real problem, we risk losing these claims as a way to quickly identify unsafe products and practices. Because injuries disproportionately fall on people with fewer resources, the existing framework creates a social underclass whose needs must be met by government programs all citizens shoulder while shielding those who cause the harm.

It’s time for America to have a more responsible, blame-free discussion about injuries and the law. With The Myth of the Litigious Society, Engel takes readers clearly and powerfully through what we really know about injury victims and concludes with recommendations for how we might improve the situation.

248 pages | 5 figures, 1 table | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2016

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: General Legal Studies, Law and Society

Political Science: Public Policy

Psychology: Social Psychology


“Engel has made an important contribution to the debate about the future of tort law. He presents an exceptionally clear and compelling explanation of why most injurers are never asked to pay compensation for the harm they have inflicted on others—and why most injury victims never receive justice. In showing how and why this happens, he also offers us a way to change it.”

Former US Congressman Henry Waxman

“An insightful and thought-provoking investigation into what people in America really do when someone injures them, why, and what we can do about it. Engel examines the facts and exposes the truth: the vast majority of people injured by others’ wrongdoing don’t sue or even consider suing. He then explains why—and the high price we’re all paying as a result. The Myth of the Litigious Society calls for public policy based on reality and dedicated to making sure the law compensates, deters, and does justice as it should.”

Arthur Bryant, chairman of Public Justice

“Engel provides an important counterpoint to the rampant irresponsible reporting on civil justice, arguing persuasively that the oft-repeated claims about the litigious society are wrong. We’re a nation of lumpers—not a nation of litigants—and Engel shows both why this is so and why our tendency to ‘lump it’ is a serious problem for us all.”

Tom Baker, University of Pennsylvania Law School

“In this well-crafted book, Engel undertakes an incisive and engaging examination of a puzzling aspect of our legal culture and issues a profound challenge to our notions of the efficacy of legal remedy.”

Marc Galanter, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Engel writes well and makes a strong case. How sound is his thesis? Sachin Pandya, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law has pointed out that Engel’s thesis is supported by studies that show that a good percentage of people choose not to sue for injuries. This may be so even when they have a winning case. He calls this reaction 'underclaiming,' and he finds Engel’s explanations for underclaiming an important contribution."

The Federal Lawyer

"Using references to movies, fiction, and personal accounts, [Engel] makes a theoretical subject more accessible. Though at heart, this is a sociological treatise, so expect a dollop of theory. . . . Clearly written, the book sets forth the author's position in nine short chapters and contributes to the debate."

Library Journal

"Engel presents a convincing argument for a shifting of the dominant narrative based on evidence of the insufficiency of the civil justice system and social science studies that explain why human nature and societal forces have led to the current predicament."

London School of Economics Review of Books

Table of Contents

1          The Case of the Missing Plaintiff
2          “Like It or Lump It”
3          How Real People Experience Injuries
4          “You Think with Your Body”
5          Theories, Models, Dogs, and Fleas
6          Causation, Cognition, and Injury
7          The Physical Environment of Injuries
8          The Social and Cultural Environment of Injuries
9          The Influence of Others and the Decision to Lump
10        Conclusion

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