10:05 a.m. - 2005-01-07
It's amazing, that in the age of Court TV and prominent mass-tort litigation, the general public still understands so little about the legal system. The way things are portrayed in the media, people get the idea that all cases go to trial, civil suits are about guilt and innocence, and lawyers are all a bunch of proselytizing camera-hogs.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
But, in the spirit of the legal world, and the ethical canons of my so-called profession, I do have to give a little disclaimer before I proceed with my rant. I'm not a lawyer, and nothing contained herein should be construed as legal advice in any way, mmkay? So, without further ado:
Loopy's Legal Information For Those Who Do Not Spend All Day Dealing with Lawyers
1. Every civil lawsuit starts with a petition or complaint. This contains allegations by the plaintiff about why they are suing the defendant. When news reporters say in a melodramatic fashion that "a petition was filed in court today alleging that XYZ Company grievously wronged Jane Doe" … there are thousands of these things filed every month. That's how a lawsuit starts. The Defendant then gets to answer these allegations, and they usually pretty much deny that they did anything, and sometimes make some counter-allegations against the plaintiff. However, this is usually not reported, because, let's face it, accusing XYZ Company of negligent, horrific acts is much more exciting than XYZ Company saying it didn't do shit.
2. After these initial documents are filed, there is usually some discovery, where each side gets to ask the other to answer questions and provide documents which back up their allegations. Then they'll take some depositions of the Plaintiff and Defendant and witnesses…which are pretty much like court testimony without the judge. Following this, there will be much paper flying back and forth, as each side seeks to not let the other say one freaking thing in front of the jury. Sometimes, the Defense will try to get the case dismissed or get a judgment against the plaintiff without a trial. This is based on legal precedent and reasoning, not bribing the judge or the corruption of corporate America.
3. After all the paper has flown around, the judge will usually make the parties go to mediation, where a neutral party attempts to help them settle the case. A lot of the time, this works. Trials are expensive for both sides. There are copying costs, labor costs, costs of paying experts and making pretty exhibits for the jury and all sorts of other crap. Trials, at least from the standpoint of the attorney's staff, are a giant pain in the ass.
4. At the trial, there will be a verdict. In a criminal trial, this is guilt or innocence. In a civil trial, it is generally negligence or liability. After the verdict, both sides have the right to appeal. In criminal trials, they pretty much always appeal a guilty verdict. This is what Andrea Yates' lawyers did.
5. The appeals court can either reverse the verdict, affirm the verdict, or remand it, which means sending it back to the lower court for a new trial. Sometimes, they combine all these things, which means they only retry some of the issues.
6. Andrea Yates' case was REMANDED, not REVERSED. Therefore, the word "overturned" is very misleading. They have to do the trial again. She is not getting off scot-free.
There are lots of lawyers…everyone knows that. You'd think, with so many of them, the legal system would not be so mysterious. However, it's like it's this big, scary monster that's just trying to eat people…or a horrible scourge upon society that's allowing people to be completely stupid and collect money for being stupid. These things are both true and false.
Sure, the legal system has problems, and lots of them. I think the biggest problem right now, though is misinformation. People support things like new criminal laws and tort reform, but they have no idea what this means for the judicial system and the penal system and the insurance industry and the professionals and citizens affected by those laws. Passing tort reform will not make your insurance premiums go down, because all it's doing is capping awards on really big lawsuits…and there really are not that many of those. It doesn't change the rules for the "you rear-ended me and now my neck hurts" variety of lawsuits, which are way more common and way more of a strain on the system.
Personally, I don't believe in tort reform the way they're selling it. If someone is permanently disabled or dies because of the negligence of another, they should be entitled to compensation which will take care of their needs or their family's. It's the frivolity that needs to be eliminated, not the awards on legitimate claims. Unfortunately, the frivolity is not so easy to fix. It's important that people have the legal right to pursue those who have wronged them. We just need to fix the definition of wrong.
I guess what I'm driving at is this: there are enough lawyers and paralegals and legal secretaries and law students and clerks floating around that you probably know one or two. So ask questions before you vote on new laws…be informed. Don't let the newscasters scare you into voting for "reforms" that really won't fix anything.
My, but I rambled on about this shit. I suppose this is what I do for a living, so I tend to get a little soapbox-y on the subject. I'll just step down from that box now.