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| 4 minutes read

Can Anybody Sue Anyone for Anything in the United States?

Clients often inquire about the various types of claims or lawsuits they may need to defend against. Many non-lawyers question whether society has reached a point where “anybody can sue anyone for anything.”  Comedians joke that friends can now sue friends over “hurt feelings.” Even some attorneys question if litigation is out of control, given the pace at which lawsuits are being filed.  

Thankfully, there does remain some degree of sanity as to the claims and lawsuits upon which private parties may be sued. Lawsuits must still fit within certain recognized categories, even if the parameters of those categories have been stretched to their limits.  Claims giving rise to lawsuits must generally fall within 3 categories: contract-based claims, tort-based claims, and statutory-based claims.

Contract-based claims are almost always between parties who know each other, the sole exception being when contracts are assigned to third-parties.  [See,  “Could the Other Party to Your Contract Disappear Without Your Knowledge and Consent?”, posted 3/23/23].  Such claims are almost always based upon “private duties” and obligations established and agreed upon between the parties. One party reaches some form of agreement with the other, typically involving the provision of “goods” or ”services” in exchange for payment. The problem as some see it, is that agreements supporting a contract based claim can come in all shapes and forms: written, oral, express, implied, and unjust enrichment or quantum meruit

The types of available remedies available in contract based claims are limited in scope and nature. Parties can force specific performance of the contracts if the “goods” or “services” are unique or irreplaceable. Alternatively, parties can rescind the contract and seek return of their payment if the contract was founded upon fraud or misrepresentation. If neither of these remedies is available, parties are restricted to money damages which would put them in the same position as if the contract had been fully performed. Parties to contract based claims often recover accrued interest, seldom recover attorney’s fees (unless provided by contract) and very rarely collect punitive damages.

Tort-based claims account for the proliferation of litigation and arise between either people who know each other, or between complete strangers. Such claims are almost always based upon “public duties” and obligations established by the legislature or courts and imposed upon the parties in order to maintain an orderly society. There is no need for the parties to agree to abide by such duties, or even be aware they exist. By far, the most common of these “public duties” is the “reasonable man” standard upon which negligence claims are based. Under the “reasonable man” standard, everyone must conduct themselves reasonably, whether by act or omission, based upon objective standards applicable to all of society. The problem as some see it, is that tort-based claims are the fastest growing area of the law and creative attorneys working on a contingent fee basis are always seeking to create or extend “public duties” to new applications.

The types of remedies available in tort-based claims are very broad. Such remedies turn upon whether the violation of the “public duty” was intentional or negligent, and whether it occurred against person or property. Intentional torts against the person, include fraud, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, battery, and assault, whereas intentional torts against property are generally limited to trespass and conversion. Negligent torts against the person or property include any negligent or reckless act or omission that causes damage to person or property. 

Unlike intentional torts, most negligent torts are covered by insurance including both the costs of defense of the lawsuit as well as payment of the resulting damages up to the policy limits. Damages available for torts against the person include all costs incurred including medical bills, lost income, future earnings, pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages if the conduct was intentional. Damages available for torts against property include repair, replacement, lost value, and punitive damages if the conduct was intentional. Most attorneys running advertisements on TV are so-called "ambulance chasers" who monitor police scanners and often meet and recruit clients at hospitals within hours after their injuries occurred. 

According to the US Department of Justice or DOJ, tort-based claims involving personal injury, most of which are filed by “ambulance chasers,” account for approximately 60% of all lawsuits filed throughout the US. Legal services offered by “ambulance chasers”  are attractive to claimants because they are offered on a “contingent fee” basis (fees based upon a % of the recovery) and risk adverse insurance companies issue payments to avoid litigation. All efforts to enact “tort reform” at the State and Federal level, restricting such tort-based claims have been repeatedly defeated by powerful lobbying groups representing the “ambulance chasers.

Statutory-based claims are restricted to statutes in which the legislation creates a civil remedy in order to help promote enforcement by the public against violators. As with torts, such claims can arise between either people who know each other or between complete strangers.  By definition, statutory-based claims arise only from the violation of a statutory duty created by the government, whether Federal, State or Municipal government. Like torts, there is no need for the parties to have agreed to the public duty or know of its existence. But unlike torts, the  violation of a statutory duty subjects the violator to strict liability, without regard to whether the conduct was intentional or negligent. Federal and State statutory-based claims include violations of the: Civil Rights Act, Americans With Disabilities Act, Equal Employment and Opportunity Act, and False Claims Act. Municipal statutory based claims include violations of zoning laws, or housing code violations.

The types of remedies available in statutory based claims are generally limited in the case of individuals; however, if the violation effects more than one individual, statutory claims can be litigated as a class action resulting in multi-million-dollar remedies and payments to all members of the class.  Thus while statutory based claims are the least common, they have the potential to have a huge impact upon the parties.

While we have not yet reached the point where “anybody can sue anyone for anything,” there is still far too much needless litigation in the world. But unless and until, laws are enacted to punish those filing baseless claims, including “ambulance chasers,” and force losing parties to reimburse the prevailing party for all costs and fees incurred, nothing will change. Creative attorneys, operating on a contingent fee basis, supported by powerful lobbying groups, will continue to craft creative lawsuits within the context of existing laws.


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