I look at civil lawsuits as a way to take on public menaces and let the community fix what’s broken. It’s why I am so passionate about cases involving civil rights, employment wrongs and insurance companies that act illegally.
Many people don’t understand why we even have a civil justice system in America, which is understandable given all the money corporate interests spend trying to get people to give up their rights. Even so, we should never forget that the right to a civil trial by jury is found in the United States Constitution and the constitutions of most of our fifty states. These are all documents written by some bright people who cared desperately about America’s well-being.
The reason we were granted this precious right of bringing civil wrongs to a jury of our peers is that the jury system is intended to be let the community make judgment calls about its own safety issues. We don’t trust kings or rich people or aristocrats with our own personal safety in the country. Ultimately, we have found through long, bitter experience, that each of those will betray us when their own personal interests conflict with those of the community. Think AIG, Enron and Citicorp. There are plenty of other examples scattered throughout human history.
So, when a hard working, honest American can’t get a fair break in their job or from the government simply because they are the wrong race, color, gender, whatever, that’s worth taking to the community because at any given time, we’ve all been on the wrong side of that selection process. Dr. King said it best. Our common dream is a society where we are judged by our character, not by the color of our skin or the practice of our religion, or our gender, or our birthplace. Only a jury from the community can promote the community’s common dream. The rich man living in the gated community doesn’t understand my neighborhood, just like I don’t really understand his. Put us both in a jury box with ten other citizens and we can begin to see things as they really are.
Likewise, the jury is our best protection when an employer cheats a hard working employee by not following the wage laws. Who do you think is a better judge of the facts in a case like that? Another business owner? A person of privilege? Or twelve disinterested people from all different walks of life?
The same thing goes for insurance. An insurance contract, after all, is simply a promise on paper to help an insured when they are down. An insurance company that cheats on its promises has an economic advantage over the honest insurer. If the jury can’t weigh in to fix the problem, the cheater will spend a lot of money on politicians and powerful people to make sure it can keep cheating and then the honest insurer either goes out of business or must become a cheater itself.
So, what should a healthy, functional civil justice system bring to our communities? Well, it should be a system that encourages personal responsibility. The system should hold people who cause harm accountable and protect those who are harmless. Properly functioning civil justice means that when we check into a hospital, the bad doctors don’t greet us at the door, because they’ve been exposed and cast out. It means better care from good doctors who set better, clearer standards. It means people driving more carefully because they know that if they speed, or make unsafe turns or drive on the wrong side of the road (which I am seeing more and more frequently here in Los Angeles, a sign I think that more people feel they aren’t accountable) they will be held responsible when their negligence causes harm. It means we don’t have to fight our employer to get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work according to the law. It means that when we make a legitimate insurance claim, the insurance company will handle it in a straightforward, honest manner, without undue delay.
I’ve written before about how the legal profession needs to start thinking about teaching law and litigation as an integrated subject. So, this is where that program should begin. We should begin with the purpose of civil justice in making American communities better, safer places to live.