Merv Grazinski set his Winnebago on cruise control, slid away from the wheel and went back to fix a cup of coffee.
You can guess what happened next: The rudderless, driverless Winnebago crashed.
Grazinski blamed the manufacturer for not warning against such a maneuver in the owner’s manual. He sued and won $1.75 million.
His jackpot would seem to erase any doubt that the legal system has lost its mind. Indeed, the Grazinski case has been cited often as evidence of the need to limit lawsuits and jury awards.
There’s just one problem: The story is a complete fabrication.
It is one of the more comical tales in an anthology of legal urban legends that have circulated widely on the Internet, regaling millions with examples of cluelessness and greed being richly rewarded by the courts. These fables have also been widely disseminated by columnists and pundits who, in their haste to expose the gullibility of juries, did not verify the stories and were taken in themselves.
Although the origins of the tales are unknown, some observers, including George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, say their wide acceptance has helped to rally public opinion behind business-led campaigns to overhaul the civil justice system by restricting some types of lawsuits and capping damage awards.
“I am astonished how successful these urban legends have been in influencing policy,” Turley said. “The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill.”
The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Book I, Chapter 11, Conclusion)