Allowing Corporate Interests to Beat the Proverbial [Bleep] Out of Consumers and Frivolous Lawsuits

By now, everyone in America has likely seen the troubling story involving United Airlines and the passenger, Dr. David Dao, they recently “re-accommodated” (a euphemism if ever there was one) from one of their flights after that same passenger refused to give up his seat. The video was terrifying and United’s response was an object lesson in how NOT to respond to a PR crisis.

As a trial lawyer and an injury attorney, I’ve been fascinated and indeed, troubled, by some of the reaction to the incident, what it says about our culture and what it says about our tolerance for consumer abuse by large corporations. Many keyboard warriors in the TwitterSphere rushed to support United and exclaimed that Dr. Dao should have left the plane immediately and/or that he likely did something to deserve his curb-stomping. Others chimed in that bumping passengers on overbooked flights is a fact of life at all airlines. Perhaps the most despicable were those that rushed to dig up Dr. Dao’s past and any misdeeds he may have committed years ago, an irrelevant strawman and shameful bit of victim-blaming.  

I find it bizarre that some people feel that United (or arguably, the City of Chicago) responded appropriately and have rushed to defend the corporate interests involved. Irrespective of what the fine print on the ticket says (we’ll save adhesion contracts for another day), whether Dr. Dao was asked nicely to deplane and became upset in response, or whether he had a murky past (irrelevant), we have failed if we reach a point where, as a society, we approve when a corporation beats the shit out of a paying customer as a means of conflict resolution.

It seems as if there have been a rash of instances where large corporations have abused consumers recently. In another recent instance involving United, the airline threatened to handcuff and remove a passenger who had already boarded then refused to leave to accommodate a higher-ranked frequent flyer who purchased a last minute ticket. By now, as you may know, Congress recently voted to allow Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), to sell your browsing history without your consent.  While we should all beware the adage that nothing on the internet is ever truly private, the implications of the recent Congressional vote are staggering. These examples are but two of many. I could simply say, “Time Warner Cable” or “Verizon” and most of you would need no further explanation. It seems as if large corporations are increasingly abusing consumers with impunity. The question we must ask ourselves, is why?

The short answer: we’ve allowed them to.  We’ve empowered large corporations to gorge themselves on profits made on the backs of consumers. While there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with making a profit, when, as consumers, we refuse to hold corporate citizens accountable, we allow them to steamroll us. It used to be that corporations recognized the need to provide top-shelf service in order to make a profit, whereas today, they feel entitled to our dollars in return for ever-decreasing service.  

I’ve recently reached the conclusion that we allow these abuses because as a society, we lack empathy. We don’t seek to understand others until bad things happen to us. Often, unless and until something terrible happens to us or someone we love, we don’t appreciate the abuse. We’ve allowed corporations to program us to believe that consumers are out to game the system, and steal from the “little old corporation” and we’ve accepted the corporate word-salad that rampant frivolous lawsuits are destroying our society.  We accept the political bunk that our politicians sell us without thinking critically about its application.

It amazes me, as a lawyer, the number of people that push for stricter DUI penalties, and then exclaim why the situation involving their child is different and why the punishment is overly harsh. It amazes me to talk with people that feel that there are far too many frivolous lawsuits and then tell me why their particular case is different and how difficult things have been for them. I can’t tell you the number of potential clients that have gotten angry with me for rejecting their case when I explain why the laws simply don’t favor any sort of recovery. They believe their situation is unique, when the reality is, their situation is similar to many others where potential clients have sat in front of me and asked for help in fighting corporate America.

At the risk of wading into a political morass, we have passed laws for decades that favor powerful corporate interests in this country and in the State of North Carolina. I regularly see the outrage when those chickens come home to roost.  As a consumer advocate, I will always fight for consumers against large corporate interests, but I’m limited in what I can do, both by the laws we have passed as a society and by the discrepancy in bargaining power.

In the future, I would encourage you, as a consumer, to have some level of empathy for your fellow man. You need not always acquiesce to whatever someone else wants, nor should you necessarily accept another’s story at face value without applying scrutiny, but take into account that neither you, I, nor anyone else is perfect and that one day, you may find yourself in someone else’s shoes. Remember that when you read the news and remember that when you go to the voting booth. If you aren’t willing to accept that advice, don’t be surprised when you’re the one that corporate America “beats the shit out of” next.