[Wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media over its publication of a sex tape resulted in a Florida jury’s award of $140 million against the widely loathed journalistic entity. There had been rumors that someone staked Hogan the money to sue. Now, Ryan Mac and Matt Drange in Forbes write that anonymous sources have told them the hidden funder was Silicon Valley libertarian Peter Thiel. The article does not make clear whether, if the reports are true, Thiel stands to gain a share of the suit’s proceeds, or was acting from dislike of Gawker.]
At common law, funding another’s lawsuit was “champerty” if done for a share of the proceeds and “maintenance” if done for the hell of it. Both were unlawful at common law (as was “barratry,” the stirring up of litigation whether or not resources were advanced for its prosecution) but as I discussed in The Litigation Explosion (1991), the old common law rules have fallen into general disuse. What rules still remain vary from state to state, often taking the form of rules specifically governing what lawyers and their associates can do (which will often leave non-lawyers free to carry on the same acts.)
Champerty and maintenance rules both came under attack from legal academics and influential commentators during the general rise of pro-litigation sentiment in the decades after 1950, and were dismissed as outdated and ethically wrongheaded. The path was different in each case, however. In the case of champerty, the rise to acceptance of the lawyer’s contingency fee, as a wholesome prescription for the general case rather than a necessary evil in special kinds of cases, tended to erode disapproval of champerty: if there was nothing at all wrong with lawyers taking a share in claims, why not invite others to do so too? As an internet search on the phrase “litigation finance” will quickly show — or a glance at a tag on the subject at Overlawyered — third-party financing of lawsuits has become a booming and largely unregulated business in the United States and a few other nations, even as champerty remains unlawful in many other countries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, believing that litigation finance is likely to fuel the volume of lawsuits, has fought for restrictions on the practice.
Maintenance, on the other hand, metamorphosed around the 1960s into what we now know as the public interest litigation model: foundation or wealthy individual A pays B to sue C. Since litigation during this period was being re-conceived as something socially productive and beneficial, what could be more philanthropic and public-spirited than to pay for there to be more of it? So what had been stigmatized or even illegal not long before soon emerged as the most admired kind of legal practice.
Once the old ethical qualms about champerty and maintenance fall, it seems unlikely that they will be revived only as to some causes or persons. Funding someone else’s lawsuit for ideological reasons, long perceived as a dangerous stirring up of social conflict that might otherwise have remained at rest, is now applauded as a means of holding powerful institutions accountable, ensuring wronged parties their day in court, and so forth. Inevitably, once all parties grow comfortable with this tool, it will be used not just against the originally contemplated targets, such as large business or government defendants, but against a wide range of others — journalistic defendants included.