One point of confusion and frustration people experience in dealing with the legal system arises from a fundamental misunderstanding, best illustated by the following exchange:
Client: “Can I sue my neighbor for the tree that fell on my fence?”
Lawyer: “Can you sue him? Sure. The question is will you win?”
Client promptly plows through this brief but critical exchange, and launches into his explanation into all the facts that convince him why his case is right and his neighbor is an irrational, unreasonable bully with no more respect for law than the average Cincinnati Bengal.
That’s a shame. There’s a teaching moment there that might help bridge the gap between lawyers and mankind. To a non-lawyer, suing someone means successfully suing someone. To a lawyer, suing someone generally means putting the word “Defendant” under the person’s name, paying a filing fee, and sending them some paperwork that says, in essence, “You’ve been sued.” In other words, lawyers view lawsuits as a process.
Don’t believe me? Do a Google news search to see how many headlines contain the phrase “can’t sue for” as in “Idiot Can’t Sue Mailman for Making his Dog Bark.” Read the article. The meat of the decision is that an appellate court upholds a lower court’s decision throwing the case out. (Often at the summary judgment stage.) The headline is, therefore, misleading. Idiot did sue. Then Idiot lost. The fact that Idiot lost at the early stages of the case doesn’t change the fact that he filed suit.
To lawyers, filing suit is like putting an address and a stamp on a postcard. Putting it in the mailbox means it’s been mailed. But suppose the recepient didn’t get it. Was it still mailed? Does mailing something mean it was put into the mailbox with postage or that it was received? Lawyers might answer that question a bit differently than everybody else. Symmantics perhaps, but bridging the gap between lawyer and client lingo can serve a purpose. As frustrating as a legal dispute can be, it can always get worse. Underestimating the time, stress, or cost of a lawsuit will make a client wish he had ignored the neighbor’s tree on his fence.