The posts by AskNott and Some Guy are on target.
Yes, you can sue for pretty much anything. You just can’t win every suit.
It is my understanding that in Ireland, also a common law country, it works the same way.
The system pretty well has to work that way. The alternative would be to come up with an exact and comprehensive list of all possible torts which will be recognized, now and forever in the future. This is not practical.
The first man to ever sue for medical malpractice was an Englishman who had his deliberately leg broken, without his permission, by a quack doctor. It left him deformed for life. He won his suit. There was no such tort as “medical malpractice” in any law book when he sued. Would it have been right to tell him that it was his tough luck that Parliament had not thought in advance of passing a law entitling him to sue a nutball doctor who crippled him?
As society has evolved, so has ideas about what constitutes a wrong for which compensation should be given. Today in the U.S. a parent can sue for the costs of psychiatric care after they see a drunk driver run over their child and drag him to death. That is called “negligent infliction of emotional harm”–and it is a tort which was not recognized until a few decades ago.
In the mid-1980s a woman in St. Louis successfully sued her estranged husband after he deliberately shot her in the back. What makes this case remarkable is that until that case, it had consistently held in Missouri that a person could not sue his or her spouse for trying to kill them.
There have been cases where people have tried to sue beer and liquor manufacturers for the harm their own abuse of alcohol did them. In one celebrated case, a man sued Coors for having “pickled his brain”. The suit was, of course, dismissed by the court as frivolous.
Tort lawyers and the tort system are favorite boogie men for the popular press in America. (I say this as a lawyer who has never practiced tort law). Suits are often reported in a misleading fashion to make them seem sensational or absurd. The reportage on the famous case in which a woman sued and won against the McDonald’s Corporation for serving her overly hot coffee is a case in point.
Imagine this: you go to a drive up window and order coffee. The snot-nosed punks behind the counter decide it would be an amusing joke to fire up the coffee so hot that it is literally boiling. Then one of them carefully picks the container up by the plastic lid so as not to burn himself and hands it to you. You are an elderly woman. The heat is so severe when you put your hand on the cup that you drop it and the coffee falls in your lap, scalding you. You are burned so severely that you require immediate medical attention, as people can–and, in fact, do–die from severe burns of this kind if they go untreated, either because their exposed flesh is so subject to infection, or because of the toxicity of the flesh that has been burned.
Are you really going to say: “Ah, a fine joke to play on a friend! Think nothing of it!”
As for the cigarette suits, consider that they in the main concern people who: (1) Used an addictive product at a time when it was not widely known to be addictive. (2) Used a product which causes cancer and other deadly health conditions at a time when this was not widely known, or was still a matter of intense scientific controversy. (3) Bought these addictive products from manufacturers who have been proven to have known that their product was addictive and to have deliberately taken steps to make it more addictive and to have known that their product caused deadly conditions but choseto lie about it, and to have caused a scientific controversy over the efrfects of their product by sponsoring bogus scientific research which concealed the dangers of their product.
Ah yes: a fine joke to play on a friend…