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What is a Frivolous Lawsuit?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

What is a frivolous lawsuit? The phrase may trigger associations with some famous cases, such as the McDonald's spilled coffee case (though that lawsuit was actually not frivolous, for reasons that will be explained below).

Legally speaking, a frivolous lawsuit is one that asserts a legal claim that has no legal merit whatsoever. Because frivolous suits lack merit, they are generally tossed out by courts.

But that's not to say frivolous lawsuits don't lead to legal consequences for the party who filed the nonsense suit, along with legal hassles for the intended target.


In a frivolous lawsuit, a party (or his lawyer) knows  -- or should know -- that the legal claim they're making is baseless, but pursue the lawsuit anyway. Such lawsuits are commonly used to harass or intimidate the target of the suit.

Contrary to popular belief, a frivolous lawsuit has nothing to do with the amount of damages a lawsuit asks for, or the amount of damages awarded to a victim. A lawsuit is "frivolous" only if it makes a meritless legal claim.


One recent example of a frivolous lawsuit involved a man who cited the Bible in claiming he had a legal right to polygamy. His appeal was deemed frivolous because it did not include a legal claim regarding how his constitutional rights were violated.

But the oft-cited "frivolous" case of the woman scalded by McDonald's coffee at a drive-thru window was technically not frivolous. In that case, a jury determined the woman had a legitimate product liability claim when overly hot coffee caused third-degree burns.

(Many critics who call the McDonald's coffee case "frivolous" are actually decrying an excessive jury award -- but the $2.9 million award was actually reduced to $480,000 by a judge, and the case was eventually settled.)


Those who file frivolous lawsuits can themselves be slapped with lawsuits seeking compensation for the other party's attorney's fees, or even sanctioned by a court. For example, in a recent case involving a frivolous 9/11 "truther" lawsuit, a federal appeals court ordered the lawyers who pursued the lawsuit to pay $15,000, plus double costs to the government.

Do you still have your own question about filing a civil lawsuit? FindLaw Answers has a robust Injuries, Accidents, and Torts message board where you can usually get an answer to your issue within 24 hours. Feel free to join the conversation.

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