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Why lawsuits are about the money

 

Last updated 5/15/2019 at 1:55pm



A criticism that I repeatedly hear directed at plaintiff lawyers and their clients is that “it’s just about the money.”

As a result when I receive calls from potential clients who have lost a husband, a wife or a child or sustained a serious life-changing injury, they will tell me “it’s not about the money, it’s the way they treated my dad before he died or they killed my child and aren’t even sorry.”

I explain to them that it is about the money, and that’s OK. It’s OK because money is the only thing that the law provides them to obtain justice. Without the money, there would be no one to represent them in court, and without the money, they would receive no justice.

Another criticism is often leveled at the justice system is large money verdicts. This issue surfaces in comments such as “how can a loss of one eye be worth $5 million,” “$25 million for the loss of a leg is outrageous” or “they should be ashamed asking for millions of dollars for their dead baby.”

It’s very easy to make these kind of judgments after seeing brief reports on television or reading the newspaper. Everyone has a natural tendency to make decisions and value judgments by looking through the lens of their own life experiences. But unlike the young person who is paralyzed with a life expectancy of 50 years, most people are paid as they perform their work and not in one large lump sum. They may overlook the high cost of home health care assistants having to be paid 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for 50 years and any continuing hospitalizations and surgeries, etc. What about inflation 20, 30, 50 years from now? Fifty years ago, a Coca-Cola cost 10 cents and a candy bar cost a nickel. A new Mercedes sports car could be purchased for less than $10,000, a Cadillac for less than $8,000 and a tripped-out Chevrolet super sport for less than $4,000. Items like gas and groceries were only a fraction of what they are now.

Another consideration is punitive damages designed by the judicial system to punish the defendant for their grossly negligent conduct such as when a drunken driver takes the life of someone’s innocent family member. Also, intentional bad conduct by the defendant like road rage, assault and battery and sexual assault justify large punitive damages that are calculated to send a loud and clear message to the defendant and to the community that such conduct is not going to be tolerated and when it occurs it will be extremely costly to the offender. Corporations such as asbestos manufacturers and chemical companies have also had to pay huge punitive damage verdicts for knowingly subjecting their employees and consumers to hazardous and often fatal products and materials, without the victims’ knowledge.

The message that I hope to share with you is not that every negligent or wrongful act that is committed justifies a large verdict. It is to provide only a few examples of the many jury instructions that judges are required to give in order to help jurors reach a dollar amount that will place the plaintiff as closely as possible in the position they were in before their injury or before the death of their loved one. These are several examples of things that everyday people who serve on a jury have to wrestle with when deciding what amount of money is fair to both a plaintiff and to the defendant. While money is a poor substitute for someone’s arm, leg or eyesight or for the life of a child, spouse or parent, is is the only thing that justice can provide.

When a plaintiff goes to trial, it is expensive. There are pre-trial and trial costs that need to be paid, medical experts who testify, depositions, experts who testify as to how an injury occurred, film crews who reconstruct accidents and court costs, jury costs, court reporter costs and investigation costs. Plaintiffs must also repay all medical bills if awarded. Many of these trial costs are loaned by the attorney via a credit line, on behalf of the deceased or injured person because the plaintiff is having trouble keeping a roof over their head and cannot afford such an expensive process; however, these costs they must be reimbursed out of a verdict.

When a jury awards money to a plaintiff and before the plaintiff sees any money, those substantial fees, for many years of work, are deducted and case costs are reimbursed. Then any medical bills paid by the plaintiff’s insurance have to be reimbursed. Only the remaining balance goes to the plaintiff. Sadly, no jury knows this information unless they are well read, that a $10 million verdict will result in much much less to the plaintiff after fees, costs and medical bills are paid.

Trial tactics of the defense are many. Often it admits liability three years after a death or serious injury, that it caused the injury, on the day of trial before the jury is seated. The defendant, in front of the jury, acts like “all along it admitted fault,” like a good guy, which is untrue, but that false impression cannot be addressed in front of the jury. All these tactics and more take place in the courtroom and are discussed outside the presence of the jury.

To make the rest of trial even more frightening to a plaintiff, unfortunately, trials and litigation are geared in favor of defendants. For example, plaintiffs are not allowed to mention the defendant’s liability insurance in trial. So the jury might speculate that the defendant is paying a verdict, attorney fees and court costs himself instead of his insurance company. The jury cannot be told the amount the trial has cost, because the defendant chose not to settle for a reasonable amount or to make a ballpark offer to settle early on, which would have helped the plaintiff right away. It is sheer gamesmanship, on behalf of insurance companies while plaintiffs suffer, go into debt and often lose jobs, homes, cars and families, along with their health from the stress of this kind of practice.

In recent months, some federal workers have been forced to work without pay. People have probably heard on the evening news that many of them are saying how difficult it has been knowing that they will not be able to pay their mortgages, home and car insurance, hospital bills, grocery bills, medications and that they are taking a hit on their credit rating after only missing one paycheck.

Now think for a moment what it must be like for the family breadwinner or a mother who can’t take care of their children, cook and earn income for the rest of their life or even for a few months, or for a family who has lost a breadwinner, a parent or a child. Think also, that when a person has been altered for life by death or injury, they often change, leading to the break up of formerly close relationships.

When individual defendants or corporations through their insurance companies and defense counsels are forced by a jury to pay the plaintiffs for what they did, the community knows what the defendant did and how much money they had to pay. This kind of system allows communities to regulate themselves and to hold wrongdoers accountable and to return the honor and the humanity to the plaintiff by acknowledging their injuries, their pain, their life changes and their families’ struggles due to death, disabling injuries, possible subsequent perpetual care-giving needs, along with a lack of privacy.

Often a person seeking justice for serious injuries must rely on family members or healthcare providers to perform private daily routines, such as bathing and using the bathroom. Most people would be horrified imagining this situation, much less living it multiple times a day for many months or for the rest of their life.

Think about these issues the next time you are asked to be on a jury. Listen to the arguments of both sides and do your best to understand all aspects of the testimony and evidence and what is really going on in the courtroom.

Ask almost any mother what the life of her dead child is worth, and she will say “there’s no amount of money that I would take for the life of my child, just let me see my little girl alive and let me hold her in my lap and hug her for five minutes and you can keep the money.” But no one can do that for her; that’s why it’s about the money.

 

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