“Alabama man gets $1K in police settlement, his lawyers get $459K”

“An Alabama man who sued over being hit and kicked by police after leading them on a high-speed chase will get $1,000 in a settlement with the city of Birmingham, while his attorneys will take in $459,000, officials said Wednesday.” [Reuters/Yahoo] Readers may argue about whether this kind of outcome is fair, but note that it seems to happen more often, rather than less, in this country (with its putative “American Rule” that each side pays its own fees) than in other industrialized countries which tend more to follow “loser-pays” or “costs follow the event” fee principles. One reason for that is that the U.S. does not actually hew consistently to the so-called American Rule; across wide areas of litigation, including civil rights suits, it follows “one-way shift” principles in which prevailing plaintiffs but not prevailing defendants are entitled to fees, and whose encouragement to litigation is greater than either the American Rule or the loser-pays principle.

Related: The Pennsylvania legislature is moving to adopt a rule adopting one-way fees for some cases in which municipalities trample rights protected by the Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment, provoking peals of outrage (“dangerous,” “outrageous,” “threatens municipalities’ financial stability,” etc.) from elected officials few of whom seem to be on record objecting to one-way fee shifts when plaintiffs they like better are doing the suing. [Free Beacon]


  • […] as I admire Wally Olson’s standing guard against the stupid and venal in law, his effort to demonstrate the inconsistency of the American Rule, that each party pays its own legal fees, through the case of Alabama prisoner, Anthony Warren, is […]

  • Why is this outrageous? Seems to me that the case should have been settled long ago, when attorney fees were really low. If the city thought there was no violation, perhaps they should not have settled at all.

  • Why is this outrageous?

    It’s outrageous for several reasons. First, the reason the fees are so high is presumably because the lawsuit was filed 2009, and it’s only *settling* now. There’s a freaking videotape of the incident in question. Justice should not work this slowly, and lawsuits should not cost 460 times their value to defend.

    Second, if the guy is getting $1K and his lawyers are getting $459K, that means there is about a 46000% penalty for attempting to defend the lawsuit – and that doesn’t include their OWN legal expenses. You can say they should have settled earlier or not at all, and that may be true… but who knows whether the judge made some unexpectedly unfavorable ruling or something.

    Third, if the guy is getting $1K and the lawyers are getting $459K, it calls into question whether those lawyers are working in the best interests of their client. The client is getting less than 0.22% of what the city is paying. I do not see how attorneys representing both sides could think this was in the best interests of their respective clients. If there was a 50% chance that the guy would win a $50000 settlement, for example, I can’t see why either side would want to settle for $1000 plus $459,000 in fees. It doesn’t make sense for the guy, who would stand to make a lot more, and it doesn’t make sense for the city, who would stand to pay not much more. (Unless both sides thought it would drag out for another 5 years, in which case my first point goes double.) The only people it makes sense for are the plaintiff’s attorneys, who might be faced with getting no fees at all if they lose.

    It might make sense if the plaintiff thought they were going to lose and the defendant thought THEY were going to lose, but then I’d question the competence of their respective attorneys.

  • It seems to me that government entities already get to engage in outrageous abuse merely by the use of civil suits (with their lower standards of proof) and/or forfeiture cases to impose on ordinary people what really amount to criminal punishments (both in terms of what the person is accused of doing, and the size of the punishment). After all, the government entity has a huge budget for attorneys compared to the citizen, even if it were Bill Gates.

    Allowing government entities to benefit from a “loser pays” rule, at least when they are the plaintiff, would make this problem a hundred times worse. So I’m very glad of this “one way rule” at least when it’s applied against government plaintiffs.

  • C,
    You have a point. The only winners were Plaintiff’s counsel and the police. Plaintiff got the crap beat out of him and only received $1,000 for his trouble. The taxpayers have to pay for overzealous police (who will have to pay nothing, personally, despite having beat the crap out of Plaintiff). If there were any justice, the police would have to pay a considerable amount of money directly to Plaintiff.

    But, there is no justice. Litigators will litigate. The cost of litigation is ridiculous. There should be a fair means for getting justice for torts causing small damages without having to pay a lawyer zillions of dollars.

  • Allan,

    If there’s no justice, and a fair means of compensation doesn’t currently exist, why the heck should we have a torts system at all?

    Real question. If it’s not accomplishing its goals, and its effects are negative, why not abolish torts? Yeah, sure, its goals won’t be achieved in this scenario, but they aren’t being achieved anyway. What do we have to lose?

  • Stewart,

    Unfortunately, the only way for the torts system to work seems to be that plaintiffs have to pay high price lawyers and engage in very expensive discovery, leading to a very expensive trial.

    I would say the best way to get the tort system under control is to have universal health care coverage. Once that was in place, the possible damages would plummet.

    I am not saying we should not have a system that compensates people for damage caused by the negligent or wilful acts of others. I am saying that the system should be more efficient.

  • I would say the best way to get the tort system under control is to have universal health care coverage.

    Because a guy that led police on a high speed chase was beaten by the police would change because of “universal health care” how?

    Where did “health care” enter into this at all?

    Here’s a different suggestion: how about holding people accountable for their actions?

    In this case, the City of Birmingham was dismissed from the lawsuit but yet has to pay for the actions of the officers that were fired and then reinstated in beating the handcuffed victim. Instead of the officers paying for the damages, the City (read: taxpayers) have to foot the bill.

    If an employee cost my business $460K, do you think I’d keep him around? Would any business? Yet taxpayers are stuck with the bill because the government protects their own instead of getting rid of the riff raff.

    A second suggestion would be to limit the bill padding of lawyers themselves. If electricians, plumbers, mechanics, etc billed customers the way lawyers do, they not only would be ridiculed, but would likely be sued by the people using the same billing principles.

    Right now there is no reason for lawyers, clerks, court reporters, magistrates and judges to be efficient in their time management. Part of the high costs of litigation is laid at the feet of the legal profession who seek to increase billable hours rather than seek justice and or truth.

    “Universal health care” is not going to solve “billable hours” much less tort reform.

  • I am not sure the Birmingham case is the typical tort case.

    I agree with your assessment of the root problem with litigation costs. Lawyers. I would also put part of the blame on the way law firms are organized, i.e., in a pyramid structure.

  • Allan,

    I am aware that you do not advocate the end of torts.

    But bear with me here. What would happen if there were no longer any tort causes of action? If the system is counterproductive, isn’t the first step to stop digging the hole?

  • The problem is not torts as a theory. It is how to prosecute a tort in practice.

    It is a system where a victim of a tort gets pennies on the dollar from an insurance company to settle when compared to what the victim would get if he had a lawyer (and paid a 33% commission).

    It is a system where tortfeasors want to litigate until the cows come home in fear that a settlement will show they are an easy mark and encourage further litigation.

    Tort systems seem to work better in other developed countries (at least the only country I hear complaints about is the US). Why is that? I don’t know.

  • I don’t think litigation fees need to be closely correlated with recovery for reasons that have been explained above and elsewhere. But there does become a “Wait, this is ridiculous” tipping point.” I’m no sure when the line gets tripped but it would seem to be well short of 459K versus 1K.