The Ability to Pay
The reality of our legal system is that people are named as defendants in lawsuits not because of their degree of fault but because of their ability to pay. When an attorney is approached by a potential client who is claiming injury or economic loss, the attorney will consider whether a theory of liability can be developed against a party who can pay a judgment. This is called the search for the “Deep Pocket Defendant.”
The Deep Pocket Defendant will have substantial insurance coverage or significant personal assets. The measure of an attorney’s skill is his ability to create a theory of liability which will connect a Deep Pocket Defendant to the facts of a particular case.
Here is an example of what might happen in a particular case. Mr. Wilson is driving in his car. Mr. Fineman runs through a stop sign at an intersection, smashing into Wilson’s car and causing Wilson severe injury.
From his hospital bed, Wilson Googles “local attorneys” and calls the first attorney he sees, Alan Abel. He is what is known as a “contingent fee” lawyer. He works for a percentage of the ultimate recovery and determines whether to invest his time and money in a case based upon what his expected return will be. Since the time and expense of preparing for litigation can be considerable, an attorney cannot afford to take a case that is not likely to pay off. Remember—no recovery, no fee. Usually the attorney advances all costs and expenses, and in exchange, he recovers these costs plus 30 percent to 40 percent of any amounts that he can get from the defendant.
Before Abel decides to take Wilson’s case, he will want to do some serious research to determine the merits of the case. Not the legal merits—the financial ones. He will want to know whether Fineman has substantial assets in order to make the case worthwhile.
Abel runs a financial search and determines that Fineman has no insurance and no significant assets such as a home or a retirement nest egg. What happens? Is that the end of the case? As for Fineman, it probably is the end of the case. Abel is not going to waste his time suing someone who can’t pay. But Abel is not going to give up so easily. He has a client with substantial injuries and that means a large damage award—big bucks. But first he has to find someone who can pay.
Here is how a successful lawyer would analyze the case to try to draw in a Deep Pocket Defendant:
1. Was Fineman on an errand for his employer at the time of the crash? If so, the employer can be sued.
2. Did Fineman have any alcohol in his system? The restaurant that served him may have liability.
3. Was Fineman on any medication? The pharmacist, drug company, or physician may have potential liability for failure to provide proper warnings, or for writing or filling the prescription improperly.
4. The stop sign Fineman ran through was in a residential neighborhood in front of someone’s house. Did the homeowner properly maintain his property and clear his foliage to provide an unobstructed view of the stop sign? If not, there is a case against the homeowner for negligence.
5. Did the municipality take due care in the placement of the stop sign? Should it have used a traffic light instead? There may be a case against the city or county.
6. The driver’s side door of Wilson’s car collapsed on impact. There is a possible case against the manufacturer for not making a more crash resistant frame.
Do you see how far we are moving away from Fineman—the person responsible for the accident—in an effort to tie in a remote Deep Pocket Defendant? In any rational legal system, Fineman would be regarded as the wrongdoer—he disobeyed the traffic law and he caused the injury. Instead, we have an attorney trying to force the blame onto someone else—who wasn’t at the scene and doesn’t even know the people involved.
The example that we just gave you is taken from a real case. Guess who ended up as the defendant.
In the actual case, the defendant was Fineman’s ninety-two-year-old widowed great-aunt Ellen. As it turned out, she had purchased the car for Fineman as a gift to him. Abel’s private investigator searched the assets of Fineman’s relatives and found that Aunt Ellen had a house that she owned and some savings in the bank. She was named as the defendant in the case and was found liable on a theory called Negligent Entrustment. The jury found that she should not have bought the car for him. She should have known that he was a careless driver and might cause an accident. She caused the accident by buying him the car. The verdict was for $932,000, and Aunt Ellen lost nearly everything she owned.
The point of all this is that the foundation of every lawsuit is a defendant who can pay. Once such a defendant is located, it is easy enough to construct a theory of why that defendant should be responsible. Judges and juries often act on their emotions—not on the law. And when the contest is between an injured or a sympathetic plaintiff and a wealthy or comparatively wealthy defendant, the plaintiff will win virtually every time, regardless of the defendant’s actual degree of fault.
As a result, the plaintiff’s attorney will search for a party who can pay a hefty judgment. In the old days, it was said that “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Now the saying goes: “He who has the gold pays the plaintiff.” The fact is that no matter how remote your connection to an injury, if you have even modest assets, an attorney for the injured party will attempt to show that you are somehow legally at fault and you will be named as a defendant in the case.
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