Law is complex — most people know that. And so are the reasons someone may seek the help of an attorney.
Contrary to what many TV shows and news reports suggest, civil litigation doesn’t simply boil down to people seeking money. Actually, money is almost never at the heart of why people come to us for help. The real reasons are usually much more personal, much more human.
Many faces of justice
On a basic level, when a person or their loved one has been harmed and they seek help through civil litigation, what they’re typically after is some type of justice or closure. But the form that comes in can be as varied as the clients we serve.
Broadly speaking, their requests will often fall into one of three areas:
- I want answers: How did this terrible thing happen? And why?
- I want an opportunity to face the person or company who caused the harm.
- I want an opportunity to tell my story (or that of my injured or deceased loved one).
And while it’s true that money is usually not top of mind when clients seek help from us, the structure of the civil justice system is such that money awards or settlements may nevertheless be a component of the justice they receive.
We’ll discuss that in more detail later on, but first let’s explore some of the non-monetary forms of justice we help provide people.
In search of answers
If a loved one is suddenly, senselessly taken from you due to the actions of another, part of the healing process often involves just trying to understand how and why they died. Just knowing the details can provide a chance for closure.
After a client’s sister died because she’d been discharged from a hospital without being treated for an easily identified health problem, that client came to us not in search of money, but with a very reasonable question: How did this happen?
We promised we would find out for her, then did exactly that. We examined the hospital’s medical records, retained experts, filed suit, questioned the people who had treated her sister, and ultimately identified the breakdown in communication that led to her sister’s death. Getting those types of answers can be a powerful first step in finding a way to heal from a devastating loss.
Understandably, after receiving this information the client wanted to know what the hospital was doing to prevent a similar occurrence from ever happening again. Her persistent questions ultimately led to the hospital changing its practices and policies.
Positive changes like that can be very helpful to a family trying to come to grips with a terrible, senseless — and in this case, avoidable — tragedy.
Confronting a wrongdoer
When somebody has been hurt, another natural reaction is to want to face the person responsible, whether it’s to find answers, or to seek contrition, or to fulfill some other personal need.
After a newly married couple’s young child died at a daycare center, it was very important to them to face the worker who had been with the child. They suspected the worker had been responsible for the death, and wanted to look the person in the eye and hear exactly what had happened. We arranged a deposition that accomplished that.
In a criminal trial, that likely wouldn’t have been possible. Criminal trials are commonly thought of as the be-all and end-all, but they can be more frustrating for families than helpful, since people have very little control over the questions being asked. What’s more, if clients are potential witnesses, they may be kept outside the courtroom while the wrongdoer is questioned.
With a deposition, however, we could ask the questions that were important to our clients and they could hear the answers. What’s more, we were able to forcefully follow up those questions in ways that the clients, in their grief, might not be prepared to do. That was powerful for them, and hopefully helped begin the process of somehow finding closure.
Telling their story
For others, especially people who have experienced the sudden loss of a loved one, the opportunity to tell their story or the deceased’s story can be a significant form of justice. The client not only wants their loved one to be remembered, but also wants the chance to speak for someone whose voice has been silenced — to tell the defendant and court and jury who this person was and what profound loss his or her death represents.
Over the years, our clients have shared moving stories about the family members they’ve lost. The stories can be heartbreaking at times, but they always illustrate the preciousness of human connections, and the devastation one experiences when those connections are severed.
Again, civil litigation cases are much more helpful for this type of justice, as they allow clients to tell their stories directly to the people who harmed them. It’s perhaps the most significant service we can provide for our clients, aside from the general support and advice we offer as they try to get through what will probably be one of the most difficult times in their lives.
The role of money in civil litigation
Of course, the end result of many civil litigation cases is often monetary. That’s simply how the civil justice system is designed to work. Unlike, say, civil rights cases, where you might see a court require some sort of change in policy or practice, the civil justice system is simply designed to provide money to victims.
We tell juries all the time that while it’s often a very coarse way of administering justice, it’s the only instrument they have at their disposal. The good news is that they do at least have some discretion in how these damages are designated. Compensatory damages, of course, attempt to compensate people for their losses; punitive damages, meanwhile, are designed to punish wrongdoing or bad conduct.
Both send a signal of how the community feels about a particular offense, which ideally can help influence better behavior going forward. This is especially true with businesses, which might take note if they’re susceptible to a punitive damages award and consequently decide it could be less expensive to change their conduct than to risk a lawsuit.
Settlements are often a better means of dispensing justice, because they allow you to do things that a jury can’t. A defendant can agree to take certain steps, and you can stipulate there must be some form of follow-up to ensure compliance. For instance, a company whose employees have been negligent could agree that it will educate its staff or change its practices in certain ways, and this would be verified later. As a result, settlements can be a very powerful agent of change.
Finally, it should also be remembered that money — whether awarded by a jury or provided by a settlement — is sometimes sorely needed by our clients. Victims and their families frequently need money in the wake of their tragedies, whether it’s for physical or psychological rehabilitation, or to pay the rent after the death of a breadwinning spouse, or to renew their education after a severe injury. Having said that, we can confidently say that every client we’ve represented would happily forgo the money a jury provides if they had the ability to turn back the clock to the point just before their loss or injury.
Trust and justice
With few exceptions, our clients want more than money when they come to us. Given the trying circumstances many of them are facing, however, it’s understandable if they themselves sometimes don’t immediately know what they want or need.
That’s OK — it’s a process. Very often the first thing they need is simply somebody to hear what they’re going through. A sounding board. A confidant. Someone they can trust who’s looking out for them and can offer advice in their interest.
We’ll spend many hours talking with clients so we can build that trust, because we want them to feel that they can tell us anything. Not only can that be beneficial for them during these fragile times, but it also allows us to explore their needs so that we can properly represent them.
Only by getting to know them and truly understanding their needs — whether those needs involve seeking answers, or facing the person who hurt them, or telling their story — can we work to effectively provide the justice that will hopefully help them move beyond this very painful time in their lives.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.