Definitely Wapner: Could a “Loser Pays” Civil Justice System Be What America Needs?


A new report from the Manhattan Institute asks a very intriguing question: If the losers in civil court cases had to pay the winners’ legal fees, would it cut down on the abundance of frivolous lawsuits in the United States? Naturally, they believe the answer is "yes":

In addition to being overly expensive, American litigation is all too often inefficient and unfair. The fees and expenses incurred by lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit are almost as costly as transfer payments to plaintiffs claiming injury. Mass tort litigation, for example, over asbestos, has been exposed as rife with fraud. Small businesses are regularly besieged with nuisance suits that they must settle if they hope to avoid crippling legal costs. Last year’s $54 million lawsuit against a small Washington-area dry cleaner alleging that it had lost a pair of pants was remarkable not only for the astronomical damages claimed but also the almost $100,000 in legal fees incurred in successfully defending against it. In American law, even when a defendant wins a lawsuit, he loses.

This study explores the likely effects of adopting a "loser pays" rule for attorneys’ fees in the United States. Loser pays, sometimes called the "English rule" but actually, in essence, the rule in place in the rest of the world, refers to the policy of reimbursement by the parties who lose in litigation of the winners’ legal expenses, including attorneys’ fees. This study argues that loser pays could be an important part of a larger effort to reduce litigation costs, better compensate prevailing litigants, and better align tort law with its goal of deterring socially harmful conduct. A loser-pays rule would discourage meritless lawsuits, but because any such rule should also ensure plaintiffs of modest means but strong legal cases access to justice, our proposal calls for:

  1. A robust litigation insurance industry similar to those that now exist in other loser-pays countries; and

  2. A cap on recoverable fees to eliminate the incentive that large litigants might have to attempt to "buy a verdict" under loser pays.

So what do you think? Is this true justice, or could it be unfairly manipulated somehow?

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