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Heartless aunt sues poor child – how bad legal reporting damages justice

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 15 October 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Sad boy

A legal news story has caught the public imagination in the UK this week – no, it isn’t anything to do with legal aid cuts limiting access to justice, the terrible state of prisons or court fees compromising the right to a fair trial.

The big story is about a case in the USA, where a woman has sued her 12-year-old nephew for injuring her wrist. Jennifer Connell, a human resources manager from Manhattan, went to visit her nephew Sean Tarala on his 8th birthday back in 2011.

However, disaster struck when young Sean (who weighed around 50 pounds), excited by her arrival, jumped on her exclaiming “Auntie Jen, I love you”.

Ms Connell’s wrist was injured in the incident, and this has apparently made her life quite difficult since. She noted during her testimony that the injury had caused problems due to the crowdedness of Manhattan, and that she had found it difficult to hold her plate of hors d’oeuvres at a recent party.

She sought $127,000 in damages, but a jury took only 25 minutes to throw out her case.

The case brings to mind other so-called frivolous lawsuits, such as the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. Why would anyone sue their nephew?

Looking closer at the case

As unpleasant as the thought of a woman suing a child (and family member, no less) is, the case is slightly more nuanced than you might think from reading headlines like “Woman Sues Nephew For Being Happy to See Her”.

According to court documents, the injuries incurred by Ms Connell meant that she needed to undergo two surgeries, and will probably need more medical treatment in the future.

Fortunately, we UK-dwellers rarely need to worry about the cost of surgery and medical treatment. This is not the case in the US – most Americans have to pay for their medical treatment, unless it is covered by their medical insurance.

In this case, it wasn’t – according to a statement by Ms Connell’s lawyers, her insurance company had offered to pay a mere $1 towards her medical expenses.

The lawyers added that “her hand was forced” by her insurance company, and that she had never wanted to take any money from her nephew.

“From the start, this case was about one thing: getting medical bills paid by homeowner’s insurance,” they said.

“Our client was never looking for money from her nephew or his family. It was about the insurance industry and being forced to sue to get medical bills paid.”

Ms Connell added, in an interview with CNN, that the only reason she had sued her nephew was because she could not name an insurance company as the defendant, and had to name an individual.

“This was meant to be a simple homeowners insurance case,” she said. “Connecticut law is such that I was advised by counsel that this is the way a suit is meant to be worded.

“I adore this child. I would never want to hurt him. He would never want to hurt me.”

There has been no word in the media on how Sean’s father felt about the case. However, Ms Connell apparently took her nephew shopping for a Hallowe’en costume a few weeks ago, so he probably doesn’t consider her to be the #auntfromhell that the media and Twitter have judged her to be.

The consequences of hysteria

I enjoy a good “frivolous lawsuit” story as much as anyone – my particular favourite is the man who attempted to sue Chinese actor Zhao Wei for causing “spiritual damage” by staring at him through his TV screen.

However, far too often these “frivolous” cases turn out to be quite reasonable cases that are presented by the media as an example of how human greed has run rampant and all lawyers are scumbags.

The aforementioned McDonald’s hot coffee case is a prime example. A woman suing a company for millions because she spilt coffee on herself? Ridiculous!

Here are a few important facts about that case which were glossed over at the time:

  • The woman, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, sustained third-degree burns from the coffee and was hospitalised for eight days;
  • She offered to settle for $20,000, enough to cover her medical bills, but this was rejected by McDonald’s;
  • McDonald’s had seen over 700 similar burning claims in the previous 10 years, and had failed to take any action;
  • We have no idea how much Ms Liebeck received in the end – the final settlement was kept a secret.

Despite the fact that all of this information is easily found via some quick Googling, this case is still treated as a punchline and an example of our overly-litigious culture. We often hear complaints over the compensation culture in the UK, even though it may not exist.

The threat of being roundly shamed and humiliated, as happened in this case, might put off people from claiming for compensation in the future – this is great news for big corporations and businesses who want to cut corners, but not so good for people who have been genuinely wronged.

If this had been reported as “Insurance company forces woman to sue nephew after refusing to cover her medical bills”, perhaps Americans would have decided that this was unfair, and they might have been more likely to support health care reform.

Instead, almost all of the reporting focused on the perceived shortcomings of the aunt, averting any discussion of whether or not it was fair for her insurer to refuse to pay out.

Another result of this is that when cuts are made to legal services and access to justice, people outside the legal industry tend to either regard these as a good thing, or just not care.

After all, most people don’t expect to have legal problems anyway, until they are staring them in the face.

So next time you read a ludicrous story about some awful person suing someone else, take a second to think about what the “reporter” may have left out, or just not bothered to find out.

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