“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mark Twain
Virtually every client who comes through our doors with a claim for personal injury or who has suffered a life-altering wrong will make that statement sometime during our first conference. Invariably, victims feel a need to apologize. After all, everyone knows that the courts are flooded with “frivolous lawsuits” filed by greedy lawyers and their clients. Whatever knowledge falls within the category of “everyone knows” is usually wrong.
Trial lawyers typically represent injured people on a contingent fee basis, often paying the expenses of preparation from their own pocket. Even cases that have merit are expensive to prepare, negotiate and try in court. Politicians who fulminate about “frivolous lawsuits” never explain why a lawyer would accept a frivolous case on a contingent fee basis. The contingent fee system is the best guarantee that a client’s case has merit. One-third of zero is zero. As a rule of thumb in our firm, if we would be unwilling to accept a case on a contingent fee basis, we should be unwilling to accept the case at our customary hourly rates.
Contrary to what “everyone knows,” the number of civil cases filed nationally in state courts has been falling during the past couple decades. According to the DOJ’s Bureau of Judicial Statistics, the “total number of civil trials declined by over 50% from 1992 to 2005 in the nation’s 75 most populous counties.” According to the Bureau, in 2005 plaintiffs won 56% of all general civil cases tried in state courts, while the award in the average tort case was only $24,000.
In Maine the number of civil filings has been constant, despite the growing population. For example, the total number of civil filings in Maine’s Superior Courts (including contract, foreclosure, tort, and other civil matters) was 4,208 in 2005; six years later in 2011 the number was 4,194, with only one civil filing for every 317 Maine residents.
These figures hardly reflect a crisis in the courts.
You have no reason to feel guilty about your decision to file a lawsuit when necessary. Our rights are meaningless unless we are willing to stand up for them. Insurance companies and corporate defendants have good reason to run public relations campaigns designed to instill cynicism in jurors and a sense of guilt in anyone who might have cause to sue. Ask yourself: When was the last time you heard a politician thundering about a frivolous defense?
Whether to file a lawsuit is a major decision, not to be taken lightly. You may seek reassurance and guidance from your family and friends. But if you have been seriously injured, either physically or economically, you should seek the advice and perhaps the services of an experienced and knowledgeable trial lawyer.