Can I Really Be Sued for That?

A common misconception that people unfamiliar with the litigation process share is the belief that a party needs a good faith basis to commence a lawsuit. Many inexperienced clients are absolutely mystified that a litigant can start a lawsuit against them on grounds that they believe are completely devoid of legal or factual merit.


This misconception rests on the mistaken belief that the courts provide a gatekeeper function to prevent frivolous lawsuits from being filed, a belief that has no basis in reality. The truth is that anyone who can prepare a set of typewritten pages and pay the filing fee can start a lawsuit and claim damages in any amount. People who have never been sued before are amazed that our legal system operates this way.


Unfortunately, the ease with which a party can commence a lawsuit stands in sharp contrast with the difficulty in getting a lawsuit dismissed once it is filed. The rules permit a plaintiff to commence an action with a very short and plain statement of their case, in recognition of the fact that a plaintiff may not be able to prove all the elements of their case at the outset. Thus, even lawsuits that a defendant is convinced are frivolous, and may in fact be frivolous, will be allowed some degree of discovery by the courts as long as the lawsuit passes a minimum threshold of alleging the bare elements of a claim.


Of course, certain frivolous actions are susceptible to dismissal on an accelerated basis, by such devices as a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment, which I will discuss in greater detail in a subsequent blog post. In the absence of a basis for accelerated judgment on one of these grounds, even the most baseless lawsuits will require some degree of discovery before the suit can be dismissed.


Further complicating matters is the fact that the merit of a lawsuit is not necessarily related to the costs that will be incurred in defending it. There is no necessary correlation between the dollar value of a lawsuit and its complexity, and the costs of defending it. Some very high dollar value suits can be fairly straightforward and inexpensive to defend or prosecute, for example where the matter in dispute is clearly governed by a well-drafted contract. On the other hand, some lawsuits where the amount at issue is relatively low can be extremely complicated, and may require more time and legal fees to resolve through litigation than the amount that is at issue.


Accordingly, when faced with a lawsuit, it is important to consult an experienced attorney who can review with you the options for seeking a summary dismissal, the costs and the likelihood of success of such a motion, and the costs of proceeding with litigation in the event such summary dismissal is not available. An experienced attorney will be able to provide you with a realistic evaluation of the costs, benefits and merits of litigation versus potential settlement.

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