Disagreements happen daily. We have them with family members, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, business associates and even strangers. We resolve most disagreements without going to court. And many disagreements which end up in court should have been resolved beforehand. But sometimes court is the only alternative. How do you know when you have a case, and what do you do once you have one?
Lawsuits and Courts
Lawsuits are nothing more than disagreements that go to court. Courts exist to give people a way to resolve their disputes without resorting to uncivilized behavior. In theory, each person gets an opportunity to present his side of the story to an impartial decision-maker. In practice, things are messier. Some people are better than others at telling their story. Their efforts will obviously influence the outcome, and maybe not for the better. Furthermore, no decision-maker (whether judge or jury) is completely impartial. Why? Humans are not robots; they have opinions, prejudices, preconceived notions, memory lapses, fatigue, hunger and other flaws that influence their ability to discern truth from error. When you go to court, these are the people who will decide if you win or lose. If that bothers you, it should. One of the best reasons for avoiding court is that you cannot control the outcome. Others will decide your dispute, regardless of their intelligence or ability or understanding of the facts. But sometimes they are the better choice, especially if your alternative is to “take matters into your own hands.” That is almost always a bad idea.
Do You Have a Case?
So how do you determine if your disagreement is a “case” that belongs in court? Cases depend on rights. The first question, then, is do you have a right that is at risk? The answer is not always obvious. Say you agreed to sell your pristine 1963 Corvette to a buyer for $20,000. After the buyer pays you and takes the car, you find out that it was really worth $200,000. You ask the buyer to give you the car back or pay the higher value. He refuses. Do you have a right at risk? No. The law allows people to sell their cars for much less than they are worth. A deal is a deal. You made a bad one, and the law is not inclined to let you out of it. But what if the buyer tricked you into believing the car was worth much less than its real value? Well, the law just might offer you some relief. Maybe you have a right at risk after all. What’s the next step?
Research your rights
There are two ways to research your rights: do it yourself, or talk to a lawyer. Doing it yourself requires time and energy to read and research resources on line or in books and other literature. The good news is that you don’t have to lay out a lot of cash. The bad news is that you will often spend a great deal of time, and still not have a complete answer. Worse yet, you may think you have the answer when you really do not. That in itself can cause more problems than it solves. If you think you may have an important right at risk, the better course is to consult an expert in rights — a lawyer.
Not any lawyer will do. You need to find one who has experience in the type of rights you think are at risk. A personal injury lawyer will usually not be of much help regarding bankruptcy rights. An estate planning lawyer will generally not be helpful in determining employment rights. And so forth. If you are not sure what type of lawyer to call, contact a law firm and ask if they have lawyers who deal with the type of dispute you have. If they do not, they will probably be able to refer you to a law firm that does.
Once you locate a lawyer, ask how much it will cost for a consultation. Some lawyers offer free consultations; others charge a fee. If the fee is an issue, shop around. But remember, if a consultation fee poses a major problem, you will need to consider whether a lawsuit is even a viable option. But more on that later. For now, the objective should be finding out if you have rights that are at risk.
If you decide to consult with a lawyer, you must put all your cards on the table. Don’t hide a single fact. Tell the whole truth, warts and all. No lawyer can give you good advice or determine what rights are at stake if you share only the facts that favor you. You may not even be able to tell what facts are good or bad. Remember the sale of the Corvette? If you tell the lawyer that the buyer told you lies about the car’s value, he might see a way to help you out. But if you leave out the part about how you’re an expert on Corvette values and you knew the buyer was lying at the time, the lawyer may well encourage you to assert a claim that will probably be defeated, maybe after you’ve already run up a big bill for attorney’s fees. Whether the facts help you or hurt you, it’s best to find out early. That can only happen if you’re totally honest about everything. And don’t worry about what you tell the lawyer. It is all confidential and will never be shared without your permission.
Do You Fight or Not?
In the next installment, we will talk about making the decision to go to court — when you should do it, and what you need to think about before you make your decision. Stay tuned.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact us at 480.461.5300, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area.