Does the Risk Of Frivolous Law Suits Justify Shifting the Risk of Paying the Other Parties Legal Fees?
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article in today’s edition - May 24, 2011, by Ashby Jones, about the Texas Legislature and a bill that appears destine to pass, that requires the loser in some cases to pay the attorney fees of the other party. Apparently the proposed law would require the loser to pay when a case is "kicked out of court" at a motion to dismiss stage of the proceedings.
In a very simplistic analysis this seems to be a good idea. A more thoughtful analysis raises a lot of questions. First of all, some cases are dismissed on a motion to dismiss, but many times these cases are dismissed on procedural and pleading grounds, and not the merits of the case. Also, these dismissals are many times without prejudice to allow the plaintiff to refile a new case, to repair some defect in the pleading.
Secondly, Texas will undoubtedly see a great surge in filings of motions to dismiss. The courts will need to deal with a surge in these motions, since the defendant has little to lose in bring the motion (which in most cases will be a frivolous motion). When the Plaintiff wins the motion and the case is not dismissed, does the defendant need to pay the Plaintiff's attorney fees? I am confident that this is not the intent. If a plaintiff wins a judgment against a corporate defendant, will the corporate defendant be responsible to the Plaintiff's fees.
While I think there are times when a loser pays system is appropriate, and sometimes there are frivolous lawsuits filed, I would like to think there is a better way to determine when to make the loser pay. If a claimant has no legal or factual basis for a claim, then the Plaintiff should pay for the Defendants legal costs. Fortunately, most cases are not frivolous.
If Texas would enact a pure loser pays system, then we would be able to see how it works. Maybe enact it for a trial period. Make the system fair and equal for everyone. Sure, it should make people think twice before bring an action - something they should do anyway. However, I expect that corporate America would oppose this proposal.
I will predict that only a small minority of cases will be dismissed on a motion to dismiss. However, some cases will certainly be decided by a summary judgment motion, which is different than a motion to dismiss. A summary judgment is a decision on the merits, where there are no material facts in dispute.
Finally, people who have no money will not care if they are responsible for a defendant's legal fees, since they will likely be judgment proof.
I will be interested to see the law when it is enacted, and to watch to see how it plays out. Laws which try to shift an advantage to one side to the other, are usually doomed to fail. To make it fair the loser pays system should apply to everyone, both plaintiff and defendant.