Monday, January 25, 2010

Justice Delayed

Enjoying my lunch at home today, I was watching “The People’s Court”. Sometimes those shows can really be funny, if pathetic, and today was no exception. It was not the show itself, however, that got my attention. Rather, it was the incredible number of lawyer ads from personal-injury attorneys who are all but begging folks who suffer the misfortune of an ACCIDENT to sue those with whom they were involved. That’s not the real issue, though. It was not the one or two commercials (I’ve grown accustomed to ignoring these guys), but I got this incredible sense of déjà vu when the same commercial aired not once, not twice, but three times within the same commercial break in the show! And it was not just that one attorney; there were three different ones! I guess it makes perfect sense that this particular time during this particular show (folks suing one another) these commercials would air, but it also made me wonder how we have reached such a point that “fault” equals “guilt” and that justice is measured in dollars and cents.

Even when discussing the issue of “justice”, is it “just” that a person can hire an attorney who works for percentages (“you don’t pay if we don’t win”) rather than on retainer (cash up front) but would compel a potential defendant to hire an attorney at $150-$200 per hour in defense? What is “just” about that? It seems to me that such an arrangement, an arrangement that seems to be advocated and defended by not only our court system but also by our Congress, presumes a certain level of guilt when the poor “victim” whose contingency-fee attorney seeks only “justice” for his hapless client in the form of a substantial settlement, and the “guilty” party is forced to actually hire and pay for an attorney.

Having once been employed by a trucking company, I’ve been involved in a couple of these suits brought by “victims” who hired these contingency-fee attorneys. Rarely do these cases actually make it to court. The contingency-fee attorneys request this and this and that and that so much so that a company and its insurance carrier finally crunch numbers and realize it to be much cheaper to simply settle and make the suit go away. Funny thing is, they usual take the settlement, making it clear that “justice” was the last thing on their minds. They were, and are, little more than legal pirates protected by a system go awry.

We weep for the poor souls who understand that wealthy people can hire the finest legal minds at anywhere from $500-$800 per hour and usually get deals that some poor sap with a public defender could not expect nor hope to attain. Yet it does not seem to occur to many others that a lawyer who works only on a percentage vs. an attorney who rightfully charges for his or her services by the hour is inherently unfair, especially when the success of the outcome is measured strictly in terms of how much or how little was awarded in damages. Even if the defendant wins, he or she is still stuck with a major lawyer bill for defense.

Actual damage awards that cover what insurance companies refused to cover, those costs that can be substantiated, are understandable. Courts exist to settle such “language” disputes, such as what a policy allows. Our system of justice was actually established to accomplish this very thing: to settle disputes. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are a whole other ball of wax. Pain and suffering? What are the criteria by which such “punishment” or “suffering” is measured?

I wish an attorney could actually answer my question and tell me exactly what element I am overlooking. There are those, and I include myself, who could not afford to hire an attorney if an accident occurred – “accident”, I say – and they were found at fault. Though fully if heavily insured, we run the risk of one day facing such a suit just by driving to the store for a gallon of milk and being powerless even in a system in which it is maintained that justice is blind. What is “fair” about one side getting a licensed attorney for no out-of-pocket cost and the other side either taking chances in one’s own defense or going into debt to hire an attorney just to avoid an outrageous settlement? From my perspective, it seems to me that our Congress – which is probably made up of 75% lawyers – and the Trial Attorney’s Association has this one sewn up and settled themselves.

But what do I know? I was just aggravated that I had to look at the same joker over and over who was trying to convince me that the world is out to get me, and he is the only thing standing between my security and ruination.