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Litigation as Moral Choice

There are times when litigation is necessary by reasonable standard of judgment. An individual or group of people are maimed or killed by a dangerous machine someone knew needed repair or had a faulty design. Thousands of families are deprived of loved ones who died from a carcinogenic compound a corporation knew endangered its workers.

Litigation often arises out of real harm where the parties believe (1) the perpetrators need to be punished; (2) the public needs protection from similar cases; and, (3) financial restitution will offset some of the financial harm suffered. Of course, there are many suits brought into court where there is a perceived harm in the minds of the parties, or harm that is based in emotion.

Litigation sometimes is brought out of simple greed. The complainant sees (or is helped to see by an opportunistic attorney) that a situation can be argued well in case law before a judge, or argued persuasively before a jury, so initiates the suit in hopes of financial gain. In a sense, the suit is “just business” to see if the hypothesis of winning will be true, and so add to the “bottom line” at the end of the year—with non-taxed winnings.

Litigation sometimes is brought by mean-spirited people who may or may not be greedy, who enjoy using litigation as an extension of their egos, a “power trip.” More than one person has initiated a suit to “teach someone a lesson.” One benefit of developing a reputation as a person who “will sue at the drop of a hat” is intimidation, a form of bullying. Of course, people who develop such a reputation are more concerned with power than the reputation with with they will be buried.

Attorneys are the professionals who enter these suits for their clients. Attorneys are no different than any other people. Some will turn away business if it offends their personal moral code. There are others who ignore complainants’ motives or personalities if the case is winnable, or at least profitable. Unscrupulous attorneys can reason, If a case wins before a judge or jury, is that not vindication enough that someone ought to have taken the case? Of course, getting 33.3% of an award feels good, too.

For many years now, people adopted this same conclusion: “If I can (or have) won a case, did I not deserve it?” The answer, if we are truthful, is, not always. Some people who deserve justice never seek it. Others go about seeking opportunities to bring suit (such as the people who intentionally slam on their brakes hoping to be rear-ended).

Back in the late 1980s, I knew a young man, around age thirty, who was contaminated by radiation while working on a furnace. Two years later, this father of five wasted away from a cancer with his newborn in his arms. He had no insurance, being self-employed, and I raised $20K to support his family while he died and to bury him. I asked his widow if she planned to sue the multinational company where this horrible event occurred. She said, “No, I’m taking the children and moving back to Idaho to live with my parents.” That was that. She was hurt enough already and, frankly, was willing to put the scoundrels in God’s hands. A month later, the grieving mother and children were gone, I assume, to be supported and loved by their families. That mother and children got no court ruling in this world.

Several weeks ago, I was involved in an auto accident, one in which I was not at fault, yet one in which both parties could have been killed. Both of us walked away without serious injuries. We celebrated no one was killed or seriously hurt. We discussed the damages and came to an agreement of what was reasonable and just. We soon will sign a complete, unconditional release for all parties concerned. No attorneys, no suits, matter ended. Could the story have ended otherwise? Of course! Anyone can sue, and anyone can inflict, or incur, enormous legal expenses.

Litigation is a moral choice. No one forces anyone to sue. There is wisdom in being reasonable, in putting oneself in your neighbor’s shoes, even in being forgiving when wronged. I have seen that the old saying, “What goes around, comes around” is true. The Bible puts it, “You reap what you sow.” Blessed are the merciful, and they sleep better, too. JDW


John Willis

John D. Willis, PhD is an expert in conflict dynamics and drivers, psychological and social; a practitioner in EEO grievances and conciliation; and, consultant to executives on conflict and ethics.  John earned his PhD from the University of Chicago, with concentration on the motives and justifications of the religious wars… MORE >

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