When people are injured by negligence--by an auto accident or a malfunctioning product, or while on a dangerous property, to name but a few possibilities--they reach out to us to learn about their rights and what they should do next. We welcome their calls, of course, but when we talk to them one puzzling refrain comes up over and over: "I'm not the lawsuit type." Every day we hear people who urgently need legal help also try to distance themselves from it. Why feel embarrassed about asking a professional for assistance? Why are legal services so stigmatized? After the umpteenth time I heard that phrase, I took a while to ponder it.
What Is "The Lawsuit Type?"
As far as I can tell that phrase is used exclusively in a negative sense to describe "sue-happy drama queens," or even outright frauds who irresponsibly waste the court's time trying for a big payday. Lawsuits also generally require associating with attorneys, which folks aren't always crazy about. Their concerns seem driven by a misconception that injury attorneys are "vultures" or "ambulance-chasers," as though they're ghoulishly pleased when someone is hurt or killed--cartoonish villains who twirl their mustaches as they dream of injured clients.
No wonder people don't want to be "the lawsuit type" if that's how they feel, but their perception is just plain wrong. The law might have to endure the exploitive efforts of a few bad apples, but that's true of almost any institution. Addicts try to scam doctors out of medication in clinics and hospitals every day. People continue to drive drunk, flouting the law and endangering innocent people. Heck, even some Olympic athletes take steroids to edge out their competition. In each case, though, these people's dishonesty is almost always discovered and punished.
The same is true for lawsuits: Some may try to abuse their right to seek justice, but their efforts usually fail spectacularly. "The lawsuit type" shouldn't be defined by those abusers' recklessness. It should just refer to anyone who rightly wants to make use of the civil justice system after being unfairly injured. Lawsuits are an important method of seeking help for wronged parties. Without them, trusting only in fate to provide, victims and their families might struggle in vain trying to get back on their feet after a tragedy.
These notions of frivolous lawsuits and opportunistic lawyers are insulting and reductive. No injury attorney is happy that someone was hurt, even if they may be glad that they are able to help afterward. I doubt I'll ever meet a lawyer who prays for a ten-car pileup on the freeway, and believing that such behavior is possible could easily make someone reluctant to reach out. At that point, whoever told them to expect it has misled them.
Who Encourages These Misunderstandings About Lawsuits?
The more cynical portrayals of attorneys there are, the harder it is for confused people to ask one for help. Two big sources of that misinformation are people close to the injured person and advocates of tort reform.
First, people close to the victim sometimes caution them that lawyers are bad news. Respectfully, they should knock that off. If someone is hurt by negligence, the least-useful thing anyone can do--no matter his personal motives or beliefs--is to say "Don't get help; lawyers will just make it worse." Advising someone not to seek a professional who is trained specifically to help them makes no sense. Is there any instance where that's reasonable?
- When I got my brakes fixed, I didn't blush and tell the garage I'm "not the mechanic type."
- The pharmacy that fills my prescriptions doesn't have to hear me protest that I'm not "medication-happy."
I didn't worry about being thought of as "the HVAC type" when I called a repairman about my broken air conditioning. Texan summer is too dang hot for that.
Sometimes their "advice" is based on experience. It doesn't have to be their experience, though; it's often a third- or fourth-hand account ("My cousin's roommate's girlfriend's dog walker got bit once"), and if you've ever played a game of Telephone you know that the more times a story is told, the further it gets from the original.
Other times they may refer to their own former case. They might believe it was worth more than what they got, or maybe they didn't win at trial. Not every accident has a happy resolution for all involved, but at least they had their chance at justice. It's not right to steer others away from that opportunity.
Still others might moralistically encourage restraint and patience. Forgiveness is surely a virtue, but you can still "love the sinner and hate the sin," especially when it damages your health and livelihood. Spiritual counsel might be comforting in times of uncertainty and pain, and in that sense I understand it, but anyone using it as a basis for avoiding legal remedies may want to reconsider.Finally, some may believe that accidents can be resolved fairly without involving the courts. This is so sweetly naive that I'm hesitant to address it, but not everyone will do the right thing of their own volition. Will a trucker's employer and insurance carrier fall all over themselves to fairly compensate a motorist injured by their employee, or will they look for ways to dodge responsibility? Be they people or businesses, most will look out for number one before all else. Since they aren't reliably altruistic, the civil justice system determines if they have any obligation to those they may have hurt.
Furthermore, it's not just (allegedly) well-meaning people who create this negative stereotype about attorneys. Some organizations want to limit what the law is capable of doing for injured people. This concept is called tort reform. Its supposed purpose is "the prevention of lawsuit abuse and frivolous litigation," which might sound admirable on its surface but is mostly just an effort by businesses to cover their assets in the event of their negligence. Local Chambers of Commerce (organizations of businesses that promote and protect their interests) cooperate with tort reformers in seeking caps on recoveries and limiting what kinds of cases can even be brought before a court, alleging that it's a waste of time and money to oblige certain petitioners. These cases often aren't actually frivolous; their plaintiffs suffer serious and traumatic injuries, and every talking head that wants to deride them should feel like a proper jackass.
Am I saying that every single case that comes before the court has merit? That's probably a tad idealistic. The important thing, though, is that everyone is still entitled to a chance at recovery. We don't decide beforehand what the law will take seriously--that's worked out in real time by the justice system. Those who bring meritless lawsuits don't usually win them, and they end up paying out the nose for their attempts to waste the court's time. Tort reformers push for legislation that robs people of their Constitutionally-protected shot at justice, and they want it because it would protect the financial interests of the businesses they serve. The umbrella of the law is meant to equitably protect everyone willing to stand beneath it, but these groups want it to stop raining entirely.
Ultimately I'm trying to point out that it's ridiculous to avoid a class of professionals whose help you need. Many things--machinery, medicine, the law--are highly complex, and rather than hopelessly try to decipher them ourselves, we reach out to those who are trained to navigate their twists and turns. Those who advise someone against contacting attorneys are at best misguided and at worst acting against that person's best interests.
Let's End This Myth.
So there you have it: Naysayers believe that only sue-happy opportunists seek the help of a lawyer, and that they're likely to get grifted in the process. That's what suffering victims are told, ostensibly to protect them somehow. Good people are scared away from making a reasonable choice, and feel embarrassment if they do make it, because biased people and cabals of self-interested businesses cultivate and broadcast some very wrong-headed notions about professional attorneys. It's not hard for the trope to take hold and propagate with the help of popular culture's numerous depictions of unprincipled lawyers.
Benign as their intent may be, the trite lawyer clichés in fiction and on TV can discourage people from reaching out to those best qualified to assist them with a specific need. Attorneys like a good lawyer joke too, as it happens, but these irresponsible portrayals also make people who need help afraid of being victims all over again. The messages are conveyed by unqualified parties, too--people that have no business shooing injured people away from their best chance at being made whole. I wouldn't ask a barber for advice about a radiator leak in my car; why credit a television writer with accurate knowledge of how the law works or how attorneys really act?
Nobody wants to be "the lawsuit type" if it continues to be understood as it is currently. It's past time that we do away with these misconceptions and overcome the embarrassment of seeking qualified help in the pursuit of justice.