Tuesday, September 25, 2007

And Thou Shalt Not File Frivolous Lawsuits

In a bizarre attempt at combining law and religion in order to make a point about frivolous lawsuits, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers is suing God.

More surprisingly, God has responded. According to District Clerk John Fiend, the answer "miraculously appeared on the counter." Oh, those law clerks.

After only a month of law school, I can already sense that the myriad jurisdictional and enforcement issues involved in this case make it unlikely to succeed. On the off chance that Chambers is granted his injunction, the court obviously has no way to enforce its ruling.

Civ Pro Mini Quiz- Does this qualify as sufficient service of process?

But this case is an effort to make a statement about a much bigger issue than whether God is a terrorist: tort reform.

Chambers is using this lawsuit, which he admit is absurd, to make the point that anyone can sue anyone. But is that necessarily bad?

In our legal system, tort legislation (ideally) acts as a form of social insurance. It allows people a remedy when they are injured, and in many cases prevents people from bearing an undue financial burden. Additionally, the knowledge that anyone can be sued (theoretically) encourages people to be more careful in their interactions.

As a society we have consistently supported this idea. Congress, for example, has explicitly recognized the value of litigating relief by passing statues that allow victorious plaintiffs to claim attorneys' fees from defendants in certain kinds of cases. These laws are specifically designed to encourage lawsuits (and thereby discourage particular kinds of undesirable conduct).

On the other hand, the tort system does not appear to be working properly. Tort costs in the U.S. each year reportedly exceed $200 billion. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, less than half of all tort plaintiffs succeed at trial. For medical malpractice, the figure is closer to one quarter. Worse, the right people usually don't sue. According to a Harvard Study, less than 1 in 7 injuries caused by medical malpractice are ever litigated.

The issue is obviously far more complicated than this post can begin to cover, but it boils down to a fundamental question. Are we willing to pay the huge procedural costs of often frivolous lawsuits in order to protect the right of every American to sue when he or she is wronged?

The truth of the matter is, if we're willing to stomach the costs, the legal system seems to do a fine job of filtering out frivolous lawsuit. In fact, in the lawsuit Chambers is protesting, the Judge is considering sanctions for the plaintiff's counsel.

Chambers, however, prefers to demonstrate how frivolous lawsuits waste taxpayer dollars by, well, wasting taxpayer dollars. God has yet to weigh in on the issue.

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