It is never as simple as it looks.
We were amused to see a report on “Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week” in our neighboring state of West Virginia. In the report, one side argues that “greedy personal injury lawyers abuse our legal system for their personal enrichment.” The other side argues that big businesses are funding the effort to restrict rights in the courtroom and will not stop until every “consumer, worker, and small business is powerless and at their mercy.”
We want to weigh in unequivocally against frivolous lawsuits and abuse of the legal system — but we also want to report that reputable lawyers will not, and cannot, abuse the system. Our laws don’t leave room for it. Our judges won’t tolerate it. Our State Bar will discipline attorneys who don’t conform to the rules and standards of ethical practice, rules and standards that have been developed over centuries.
We know that the insurance industry sees economic advantage in promoting the view that personal injury lawyers and their clients are often out to “win the legal lottery” on every case, but that characterization does not hold true for the cases Burnett & Williams represents. As one of the oldest and most experienced Personal Injury firms in Virginia, nearly all of our cases involve clients who have been caught up in a tragedy that is no fault of their own. We represent teachers who’ve lost their careers after being sideswiped on the way to work, athletes who have been paralyzed by an equipment malfunction, families who have lost a parent in a work accident, and countless other innocent victims.
In each and every case, people have had their lives suddenly altered, and entered a long nightmare of medical recovery and insurance negotiation because of someone else’s negligence. These cases are high value only when the medical care that piles up is enormously expensive, and the impact on the individual’s future life is severe. Multi-million dollar payouts are rare, but when they occur it is because life-altering damages have been incurred.
In such circumstances, insurance companies are almost always on the hook for substantial, provable damages. And when insurance is needed most, the insurance companies will maneuver in every way they can to minimize their payout. The issues get complicated, the governing laws are complex, and the only chance a victim has to prevail in the process is through the advocacy of a strong, knowledgeable attorney. In big cases, it is almost always an issue of an insurance company trying to use the law to minimize their payout versus a victim’s attorney trying to use the law to maximize their client’s payout — all within the set rules of law. The vast majority of cases these days settle out of court, and when the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the case will go to a jury trial. We think it is telling that the insurance industry is much more distrustful of the wisdom of the jury than the victims’ advocates are.
In the real world of litigation, experienced personal injury lawyers have no interest in frivolous cases, because they are seldom successful. The skilled attorneys have plenty of good cases to keep them busy with clients who really need help. For someone who has been irreversibly injured and needs assistance the rest of their life, a full settlement can be the difference between being able to afford good medical care or relying on institutional care the rest of their life. For a family who has lost a breadwinner, a full settlement can mean the difference between children being able to stay in their home or having to fall into a lower standard of living. When the stakes are that high, every injured individual and family deserves to have strong expertise in their corner, and strong laws on their side.
The rules of law that govern personal injury law can be adjusted over time to provide better balance, but that process should always be driven by what best serves justice for the community as a whole, especially those who have little power within the system. Change should never be driven by those who have a strong financial stake in altering the rules, like the folks who have launched “Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week.”