You hear it all the time on the news, from your local Chamber of Commerce, from conservative commentators and from ambitious politicians: Greedy plaintiffs are out there looking for easy money playing "lawsuit lotto."
But that’s just not how it works. What the media and tort reformers won’t tell you is that filing a lawsuit is not just an emotionally trying and stressful experience, it can also be incredibly expensive. Here are some quick facts you may not know:
- Almost every lawyer who handles lawsuits on behalf of injured people works on a contingency fee. This means the lawyer does not get paid a dime unless they win. In fact, almost every contingency fee agreement means that the lawyer must advance the filing fees, expert fees, and other costs associated with the lawsuit before the case can get off the ground. Those fees can be expensive.
- Depending on the case and court, the cost just to file a lawsuit can be $400-600 dollars. If a plaintiff loses then they get nothing and their attorney loses the filing fee.
- Many, many cases require the testimony of an expert. The law in many states now requires expert testimony regarding the cause of an accident and whether the defendant failed to meet the standard of care (the way a reasonable person under the same circumstances would act) in order to get to trial. Hiring an expert can cost thousands of dollars. In really complex cases the costs can reach 10s of thousands of dollars. This is money the attorney or client must advance.
- Every state has laws prohibiting baseless or frivolous lawsuits. Generally speaking, plaintiffs and their lawyers can be sued for using the courts for an improper purpose or for pursuing baseless claims.
- Filing a law suit takes a lot of time. Every state is different, but recent changes in federal law now require that attorneys make specific allegations in their Complaints (the document filed at the beginning of a law suit). It isn’t enough to simply say the Defendant was negligent. Attorneys must explain why and how in their initial filings. This means that attorneys must spend significant time investigating the facts of a case prior to filing a lawsuit.
- Most law suits take years, not months or weeks. A lawyer who takes a case on a contingency fee not only advances substantial costs to ensure the case gets off the ground but must also wait a year or more in many cases before they have a realistic chance of recovering any of their investment.
- Juries do not award excessive or wild verdicts as a general rule. Juries are made up of folks just like you and most people do not reward people who are not injured or who are seeking "free money." Even when juries do award more money to a plaintiff than their claim deserves, the court has the power to reduce that award to a more appropriate number.
- Big verdicts with remarkably large punitive damage amounts are often reduced. The Supreme Court has limited the ratio on punitive damages (damages to punish vs. damages to compensate someone for what they lost) to a maximum of a 10:1 ratio in most cases. That means if a jury awards a person 100,000 for their suffering, pain, and bills, a punitive damages award in excess of 1,000,000 will almost certainly face a legal challenge and may well be reduced. In fact, in some states, courts reduce punitive damages awards to a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio.
- Filing a lawsuit is an incredible stressful experience for most people. It involves reliving a difficult experience and being involved in the legal process which is often confusing and intimidating. For most people, being involved in a lawsuit on either side is an unfortunate experience. But it is an experience people endure to ensure that they get the compensation they deserve.
The long and the short of it is that Plaintiffs can’t just file a lawsuit to make "big bucks." More importantly, attorneys have an ethical duty to only press legitimate claims. For more information about the ethical duties of attorneys, consult your state bar website.