How To Face A Lawsuit
What to do, or not to do, if faced with a lawsuit and a helpful guideline to buying enough insurance to prevent financial devastation.
You are sitting in the security of your home, lounging in your favorite easy chair, watching television. Then comes a knock on the door. When you open it, you find yourself confronted by a sheriff’s deputy carrying a piece of paper in his hand. It is a summons. You are being sued!
What should you do? Here’s some good advice about what you should and should not do, as well as a way you can prevent financial devastation should you lose the case.
Jim Byrne is a retired lawyer from California who practiced civil law for over 30 years. His best advice is not to panic. You are not the first person to be sued, he said, and you will not be the last.
“This society has come to believe that money is the best redress for any alleged wrong,” he said. “More people are getting sued today than ever before for punitive damages in tort cases -- and sometimes for the most trivial things. Anyone has a right to sue for punitive damages if they feel they have suffered injury or permanent loss due to your negligence.”
Companies are the main targets for tort suits. The media focuses on the big lawsuits, the big settlements -- the tobacco companies and gun manufacturers. “Sometimes I think the public looks at awards in the millions or billions of dollars, then wonder if they can get a piece of the action,” Byrne said with a grimace.
“Winning a big lawsuit is a windfall,” Byrne said. “Some people claim it’s easy money and in many respects they’re right. Getting a check is such a sure bet in some cases that many attorneys attract business by advertising that they get paid nothing unless they win the case. The catch is, of course, they will never take a case unless they are reasonably sure they will win, and some have become millionaires in the process.”
Abuses of tort laws, according to the American Tort Reform Association, have grown “almost four times faster than the rate of growth of the U.S. economy.” There has been some reform, but progress has been slow because powerful special interests want to see present laws remain in effect.
In the meantime, an individual or a business owner remains at risk. This is why it is wise to be prepared in case you become a target.
Byrne said the first thing to do when served with a writ or summons is to contact a lawyer. If you are insured (and these days, you better had be), contact your agent. Although Byrne said that anyone has the right to defend himself in a civil action, he quoted an old phrase used by members of the legal profession: “A attorney who defends himself has a fool for a client.”
An attorney, one who specializes in civil cases, will decide the best course of action. “Most are highly skilled in negotiation,” Byrne said. ‘They’ve done this many times before. In the long run, a good attorney may be able to save a bundle of money. The name of the game in tort is negotiation. A good attorney will negotiate the smallest possible settlement.
An attorney will try to settle the case out of court if possible. Barely half of the lawsuits in this country ever see the inside of a courtroom. That is because it is always cheaper to settle a case rather than take it through the legal system.
But Byrne cautioned to allow the attorney to handle the case without interference. Never, Byrne said, contact the party who is suing you on your own -- for any reason. Suppose, for example, that one of the neighbor’s kids come on your property and is bitten by your dog. You feel bad that your dog has bitten the kid, so you send her a little stuffed teddy bear.
Your homeowner’s insurance will probably pay the child’s medical expenses, but the parents can also sue you for harboring a dangerous animal and demand payment for pain and suffering -- even though the kid did trespass on your property. “As strange as it may seem, showing outward sympathy toward the victim can go against you in court,” Byrne said. “The opposing attorney could convince the judge or jury that by doing this, you are showing a guilty conscience -- that you knew your dog was “vicious” and you are feeling remorse. You are guilty and deserve punishment -- i.e., punitive damages.
In the event that you might be sued, Byrne advises that you always carry adequate insurance. Dennis Fritz, an Allstate insurance agent in Weber City, Virginia, recommended the following minimum liability coverage.
-- A homeowner should carry at least $100,000 liability policy, though Fritz said that $250,000 - $500,000 is a safer bet. “If a person has a swimming pool on their property, I would recommend at least $250,000 in coverage,” Fritz said.
-- Auto liability should be at least $100,000 - $300,000.
-- Businesses should carry at least $1 million or more in coverage.
A person slipping on your icy sidewalk, being injured in an accident in which your car is involved, or spilling a hot cup of coffee on themselves in your restaurant -- all can sue you for damages. To avoid financial devastation, Byrne said, owning sufficient insurance is the best protection.