5 things everyone should know about suing someone
Attorney Kimberly Beck
Let us assume you have been wronged by someone and you are considering suing that person. Before you even call a lawyer, you should know the following.
1. Most of the time, you can only win money in a lawsuit if you are out some money because of what the defendant did.
Face it, there are a lot of terrible people out there or at least people who do terrible things. You cannot successfully sue everyone who does something “terrible” to you. For example, if someone is merely rude to you, that alone is not a basis for a lawsuit. Additionally, if someone says bad things about you, that may be slander, but if you are not out any money as a result of this slander, you probably are not going to be able to successfully bring suit.
As with most legal rules, there are exceptions. Some statutes, usually consumer protection statutes, allow for what is called “statutory damages.” That means that the government has decided, as a penalty for bad behavior, a defendant (almost always a large company) has to pay a certain amount of money fee each wrong committed. These cases are frequently class actions. Most attorneys will only take these cases if they think they can get enough plaintiffs to make a class action make sense for the law firm financially.
2. “You Can’t Draw Blood from a Turnip,” as my grandmother used to say.
You cannot get money from someone who has no money. Lawyers refer to this “someone who has no money” as a “Judgment Proof Defendant.” You may get a judgment for $100,000 against a Judgment Proof Defendant, but not be able to collect even a penny. No one wants a judgment against someone who will never pay. You have expended the time and money to get the judgment and will never have anything to show for it.
3. Many lawyers will work for a contingent fee, but that is not working for “free.”
You may be able to hire a lawyer for a contingent fee if the lawyer thinks that you are going to get a substantial award at the end of the case. Basically, a contingent fee lawyer (like me) agrees to take a certain percentage of the amount you win from the defendant.
The lawyer trusts her own judgment and ability to predict which cases are going to pay enough to justify that amount of work that needs to go into the case. Contingent fee lawyers are not working for free. Instead, they are working for a percentage of the money the defendant pays you at the end of the case. This model works well because many people who are hurt cannot afford to pay an attorney an hourly rate.
Most lawyers do not work for free. The exceptions to this prove the rule. Many respectable attorneys do some pro bono (no pay) work. Many firms, like Beck Law Center, have relationships with organizations like the Urban League or Volunteer Lawyers Project. Through those partnerships, the firm will take pro bono cases referred by one of these organizations.
I am not familiar with many firms that will take on the representation pro bono of someone who calls directly. This is so because they simply do not have the mechanisms for investigating whether the person who calls should be a pro bono client. Thus, they rely on their partners, like the Volunteer Lawyers Project to identify the right clients and cases and the lawyers just handle the legal matters.
4. You are not entitled to a civil lawyer. The court will not appoint one.
Criminal defendants who may be sentenced to time in jail or prison have a constitutional right to an attorney. Therefore, the court will appoint these criminal defendants a lawyer through the public defender’s office. Public defenders are not working for free. To the contrary, they are being paid by the government.
Unfortunately, there is no constitutional right to a lawyer in a civil case. I have seen many, many people ask a judge to appoint a lawyer. However, I have never seen a judge do it in a civil case.
5. Family law almost always needs to stay in family court.
Divorce, child custody, and child support cases are long, drawn out proceedings that can last until the youngest child turns 18. It could be even longer if the child needs continued care or child support is in arrearages. Obviously, there are bound to be hurt feelings, and the litigants who feel like they are being treated unfairly.
I can imagine some unique set of circumstances that would give rise to a civil case, but they are very few and far between. If you are having problems in a family law or domestic relations case, the best place to resolve those problems is family court. If something happens that could give rise to a civil case, your family law attorney will let you know. Those circumstances are very unusual.