Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cultural variation in litigiousness: a legalistic, left-brained account

I'd always assumed that the extraordinary litigiousness of American society said something deep about our culture.  It must be that we expect to have more control over the chance events in our lives than people from other cultures do; that we accept less readily that sometimes bad things simply happen and no one's at fault; that we're always looking for easy ways to make big bucks--if not through the state lottery, then through the lottery of the civil court.

But a German national who's spent time in the U.S. and knows something about this sort of business professionally proposes to me an alternative explanation. In Germany (and throughout Continental Europe) governments limit lawyers' fees and don't allow class action suits. This both reduces large awards, and prevents such rewards from bringing big bucks to those who make them happen.  German lawyers, in other words, have much less incentive to chase ambulances, or to represent people who want to sue for huge demands.

Were German lawyers to have the same incentives as their American counterparts, my German contact assures me, they'd have no trouble finding large numbers of injured clients eager to act as litigiously as we do.


Independent George said...

But aren't all of those legal differences themselves a result of distinct cultural heritages? As I understand it, the right to file suit for civil damages is pretty deeply ingrained in the British legal traditions. Obviously, there's been some divergence (libel protections and loser penalties immediately come to mind), but it seems consistent with the German cultural tendency to focus on rules & administration, and the British emphasis on rights*.

*not an anthropologist - just someone who works in international tax and is accustomed to dealing with German engineers and British demands.

Katharine Beals said...

Interesting point, IG. Rings true. Perhaps rights vs. rules is less universal than the urge to sue for big bucks.

kcab said...

I've heard it said that our health care system/lack thereof is part of the problem. That is, the way in which health care and insurance have been handled in the US has led to lawsuits being filed to cover health care costs paid by individuals and insurers.

Katharine Beals said...

kcab, I could see compensatory damages being used to fill gaps in health care. But the really out-of-control damages are the punitive ones. I'm under the impression that that it's these, more than compensatory ones, that really distinguish the U.S. from other countries.