The Realities of Litigation
For most people involved in a dispute, declaring the words “See you in Court!!” can seem like the perfect threat or even feel therapeutic at the least. Some even presume that by stating “I’m going to sue you” is like declaring nuclear war against the other side and the person or company that wronged you will certainly want to ‘settle’ because you have scared them with a lawsuit.
However, people who have actually been participants in litigation soon realize that there is no such thing as “inexpensive litigation,” and many individuals, fueled by the passion of a person scorned, proceed hastily to the courthouse seeking vindication or retribution without having a full understanding of the realities that they are getting themselves into.
Certainly, one of the great hallmarks of our society, and what separates the American system from many others around the world is an independent judiciary. But again, the media frequently oversimplifies what is actually involved in the legal process with its sole focus on sensationalizing the outcome thereby conveying a misleading impression of the actual litigation process. Here are a few misconceptions I frequently encounter with clients about the litigation process include the following:
- Are you ready for the PROCESS? Unless you are in small claims, you generally don’t just file a lawsuit and then get to see Judge Judy the very next day. Media usually focuses on “trials” only, but ignores the months (usually years) of pre-trial procedure needed to get to that point. Litigation usually begins with a “Complaint” which begins the “pleading” phase where the parties set forth their allegations and responses in defense. Sometimes there could be challenges to the pleadings through the motion process, which add additional expense and delay. Once the pleadings are done, then the parties have the opportunity to require other parties to the lawsuit to answer questions, produce documents, or take testimony of witnesses (the “discovery” phase). It should come as no surprise that parties to litigation are not always so eager to provide information that may hurt their case, and so the discovery process can often take months or years with parties jockeying in court over who should get what. Assuming the parties have completed discovery, that does not necessarily mean you go to trial. Trials only occur when there are actual factual or legal issues in dispute which requires a judge or jury to determine, and the reality is that most lawsuits do not go to trial. Although the cost of litigation varies depending on the location and issues involved, what I usually tell clients is the cost to go through these procedures to litigate a normal civil matter from Complaint up to but not including trial, doing a minimal amount of work, can easily run between $50,000 to $100,000. Preparing for and conducting a trial can substantially increase these costs and so unless you’ve retained an attorney on contingency, the expense and delay litigation is definitely an important consideration for most litigants.
- Does the Opposing Party have Assets to Satisfy Your Claim? Usually this is the first question I ask a client contemplating litigation, and many times it is question the client hasn’t considered. It makes no financial sense to pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a case if the defendant has no money. Although I’ve had my share of clients walk into the office wishing to sue “on principle” or “just to make a point,” these moral considerations usually get thrown out the window very quickly once we begin to discuss the costs that will be incurred to get them to where they want to be. So unless the opposing party has significant, identifiable assets that may be exposed in a lawsuit, or there is sufficient insurance to cover the claim, many potential litigants find themselves having no remedy for their claim because the opposing side is essentially “judgment proof.”
- Do you realize how unpredictable litigation can be? This should go without saying, but I spoken with plenty of people contemplating a lawsuit express confidence that a judge or jury would find them in the right. In litigation, it is less about who is wrong or right and more about what you can prove. Court decisions are ultimately made by people who come from all types of backgrounds and from all walks of life, and attorneys in high stake cases often employ professional “jury consultants” and perform “mock trials” to gauge how a jury will likely view their case. Despite all the money that is spent on attorneys, consultants, experts and the like, even the best attorneys with the greatest of resources lose cases, and most of us have probably followed cases in which we were surprised by the outcome. From a legal perspective, the reason there are trials is because there are issues of law or fact in which “reasonable people can differ.” If every issue in a case was a “slam dunk,” then there would be no need for a trial.
For these reasons and more, I consider litigation to be the option of last resort. Although the media likes to portray litigation and trials as dramatic and full of suspense (which it certainly can be), they leave out the cost and the time consuming process.
Consider interviewing several litigation firms before embarking on your lawsuit and make sure you weigh all the pros and cons of a long draw out lawsuit. It doesn’t mean litigation shouldn’t be a tool, threat or productive option in your dispute, but just go into the process with your eyes wide open.