Hi, Everyone……I don’t want to be one of those cranky people who mutter about what’s wrong with our way of life or legal system, but I do think there is one aspect that could use some rethinking. Although I think that there is very probably a valid place for the system of contingency lawyers, for people who have no money to pay for legal assistance, and genuinely need help. Legal help can cost a fortune, and for instance for those who have a serious accident and no money to pursue it, contingency lawyers can be a Godsend to help right serious wrongs and reward people for injuries and bad things that have been done to them. But like any other system, I believe it is sometimes, maybe even often, abused, by clients with less than admirable motives, or even motivated by pure greed.
The contingency system, as it exists now, means that if you have a problem and want to sue someone, you go to a contingency lawyer and you can hire him, essentially for free. However long the case takes to resolve, the lawyer does not charge you for his time, and charges you no fee. If you win whatever amount you are suing someone for, the lawyer takes a percentage of whatever you get in the end. And if you lose, he gets nothing. And if you get a settlement instead of winning the lawsuit, the lawyer gets a percentage of that, in lieu of a fee. It is a gamble for both attorney and client, with more risk for the attorney than the client. If the client wins his or her case, they make some money, either to cover their injuries or damages, and if they lose, the whole procedure costs them nothing. It’s a lottery ticket of sorts, where you can only win or break even, you can’t lose financially. If you win, the contingency lawyer gets a hefty percentage of the proceeds to cover the time he or she invested in your case. And if you lose, the lawyer loses out, has spent their time on the case, and gets nothing. But since most lawsuits end in settlements, the lawyer almost always gets paid something, as they get a percentage of the settlement. In fact, I think most attorneys and clients don’t expect to win a case anymore, they count on getting a settlement, to pay them off before the matter ever goes to court. Insurance companies if sued for instance will almost always settle to avoid the cost, time, and headache of going to court for an expensive lawsuit, or even a less expensive one. So both contingency attorney and client expect to come out ahead on these procedures, usually with a settlement, or a win in court.
What I don’t like about this system (despite the benefits to genuinely worthy people whose only recourse to legal help is in a contingency lawsuit, because they can’t afford to pay a lawyer) is that it is a very appealing system to some less honorable people who are looking for money where there is no risk to them. If they lose the case, it has cost them nothing. This system has in fact induced many people to bring sometimes frivolous lawsuits, since it won’t cost them a penny, they’ll either win or get a settlement, and if they lose, they walk away with it having not cost them a dime. That’s a very appealing system, which I believe is frequently abused.
In other countries, like France or England, in a similar situation where you bring a lawsuit against someone, if the person suing loses the law suit in court, they have to pay not only their own attorney fees, but the legal fees of the person they sued. There are no contingency lawyers in France or England (or possibly all of Europe). It makes people bringing a lawsuit give it some serious thought, bring lawsuits far more responsibly, and not just take a flying leap at some money. If it’s liable to cost them money if they lose, people are far more likely to be serious, thoughtful, responsible and more honorable about suing someone, and not just do it for the hell of it, because it’s free. For a person suing someone else under our contingency system, it really is a lottery ticket and a great no-risk way to make some money.
As I said, I am sure that there are many people who use this system responsibly, and honorably, particularly indigent people. But there are many, many people who use this system to sue others just for the hell of it and see what they’ll get. If they had to take the risk of paying the other person’s legal fees if they lose that suit, they would think more carefully about bringing a lawsuit. I really do think there should be some risk to the person suing too. We have become known around the world as a litigious society and country who bring lawsuits at the drop of a hat, for nearly anything—not always, there are always valid lawsuits that should be brought—-but far too often. Personally, I have had lawsuits brought against me, frivolously, just because people thought they’d get something out of it. I would be the first one to pay up, if I thought I had hurt someone or damaged them, but a system that costs the sue-er nothing is just too appealing and strong temptation to greedy dishonorable people.
Two instances stand out in my mind. Years ago, I had an employee who got rear-ended on the way to work. He came to work in fine spirits, delighted with the experience and entirely uninjured. He thought it was great news and announced that he was going to sue the other driver and claim that he was injured. He wanted me to confirm that he was injured and unable to work, which I wouldn’t. He was fully prepared to be entirely dishonest about it, and thrilled that he was going to get a contingency lawyer that would cost him nothing to pursue it. He had nothing to lose with a contingency lawyer, and everything to gain from either a settlement or a lawsuit. I thought it was despicable of him to lie about it, but a contingency lawyer did take his case, and I believe he got a settlement, and was very happy with it.
The second instance was when I went to a movie with a friend, also many years ago. He bought a candy bar, bit into it, and found that there was a little piece of twig in the candy bar (it had peanuts in it). He was also thrilled, suffered no injury and happily announced that he was going to sue the candy company, claiming injury and all kinds of emotional distress. He hired a contingency lawyer and won a nice settlement and he was thrilled. I thought a lot less of both these people after watching them in action, and knowing their intentions, in both cases based on pure greed, and facilitated by contingency lawyers who took their cases.
I think we need a system which is more fair, and has some teeth in it, that will discourage the casual, greedy ‘sue-ers’. We just make it too easy for them, with lawyers who will work for free and only a percentage of the winnings——and with no obligation to pay anything if they lose. We deserve our reputation as frivolous sue-ers in this country, with people who will sue for damn near anything because it’s so easy and cost-free. And people with money, and even some without become easy targets and victims of this system. I think we need to change the system so that a person who sues, whether responsibly or not, needs to pay the other guy’s legal fees if they lose, and their own. It would rapidly unclog the courts, and ensure that only people who have a serious and worthy claim would bring lawsuits. And perhaps the indigent could be exempt from paying fees if they lose, but everyone else should be responsible in a lawsuit, and not have it be quite so easy. I’d rather buy a lottery ticket than sue someone unfairly and irresponsibly, as a way of making money, just because it’s free to sue them. End of cranky speech.