Damages and do I have a case?

“Do I have a case?” is a question lawyers often hear. The answer is “anyone can sue anyone anytime almost regardless of the merits of their case.” What people are really asking is “How much money do I get if I sue someone?” At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, the question is too complicated to answer in a short blog. The answer depends on the state law, the individual facts of the case, the whims of a fickle judge or jury, other factors, and the financial strength of the defendant.

Working backwards, let’s talk about the financial strength of the defendant. If you’ve won a legal case and received a money judgment you can, with some limitations, garnish someone’s wages or property to pay the judgment. If someone doesn’t have many assets, works sporadically, or operates on a cash basis it is difficult to collect the money you are owed. If the case is based on a crime, like theft, a judge can require the guilty to pay restitution to the victim as a term of any probation offered.

Take the example of an individual with the belief that a hired care provider had stolen items from his house. Unfortunately, the hired care provider was poor and it was believed she had very little in the way of assets. Even if the individual had a great case it seemed unlikely that the care provider had the funds to pay any judgment. That is one reason why State’s require drivers on the road to have insurance. If an accident occurs the potential for great injury exists and we want a guaranteed source – like an insurance company – available to ensure that a judgment can be paid. Even with a state law requiring insurance, the financial strength of the defendant still comes in to play. There are people who drive without insurance and they are likely to be the same people who have few funds available to pay any judgment. The best way to protect yourself from uninsured or underinsured drivers is to purchase coverage from your own insurance company.

Continuing to work backward, let’s talk about the whims of a judge, jury, and the individual facts of a case. In the case we were discussing above, the individual was elderly, his memory was not what it used to be, and he had been diagnosed with early stage dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. When the alleged theft was discussed, he had to admit that it was possible he had given away items or forgotten where he had stored them. The individual also had to admit that other people came and went in his house. Without evidence like witnessing the theft, finding the stolen items in the care providers possession, or even knowing that an item went missing immediately after the care provider was near the item, the chance of a judge or jury finding the care provider liable for the missing property was low. Certainly the individual’s memory issues would come up at trial.

Continuing with our theft example, even assuming you can prove someone took something from you the value of the stolen item must be proven. As an example, if you had a gold coin that was stolen and not recovered its value could depend on a number of factors. Was the coin so rare that it had value to collectors? If so, what was its condition? If not rare, was the coin plated, 10K, 14K, or 24K gold and what was the weight of the gold as opposed to any metals also contained in the coin? Unless an appraisal had previously been performed, or the client could prove the rarity, condition, or metal purity of the coin, the court would have no idea how much money to award the individual. Because of a court’s rules, to prove value, you might have to pay an appraiser to come to court to testify. In many cases the cost of hiring an appraiser might outweigh the value of the coin.

Continuing to work backward, let’s talk about the differences in state law. Using the automobile example,Marylandfollows the doctrine of contributory negligence. That means if you are even a little bit responsible for aMarylandaccident, you cannot recover anything from the driver who was mostly at fault. If you were one percent (1%) the cause of theMarylandaccident and the other driver was ninety nine percent (99%) the cause of the accident, you cannot recover any damages. Compare that toWashington,D.C.which follows the doctrine of comparative negligence. In D.C. if you are partially responsible for an accident you can partially recover your damages from the other driver. If the other driver is ninety percent (90%) responsible for the accident than that driver pays you (90%) ninety percent of your damages. Assuming a judge or a jury can determine who is what percentage at fault. Assuming you can prove the dollar value of your property loss. Assuming you can prove the dollar value of your medical bills and your pain and suffering. Assuming you or the other driver have insurance. Assuming the other driver has the financial strength to pay the judgment. Assuming the other driver doesn’t successfully declare bankruptcy.

At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, when you ask “do I have a case?” or “how much money do I get if I sue someone?” you are probably going to have to ask a lawyer.

About Tim Leahy

Timothy P. Leahy, a partner at the firm, practices law in Maryland and the District of Columbia and is a member of the American, Maryland, D.C, and Prince George’s County Bar associations. He received his J.D., cum laude, from the University of Baltimore Law School in May 2000, earned his M.B.A. in 1993 at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and his B.S. in Transportation & Logistics at Maryland in 1990. Timothy brings over 10 years experience in business to his practice of the law and focuses on litigation and general practice matters. A former home improvement contractor and army reservist, he volunteers with Christmas in April and has coached for the Bowie Boys & Girls Club. He is a Board member of his homeowners association, pro bono counsel for Bowie CLAW, and a volunteer Mediator for the District Court of Maryland. Timothy moved to Bowie in 1982 and lives there with his wife of 24 years and two sons.
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