This week I had to write that "sorry, but I cannot take your civil rights case" letter to a man who had been badly assaulted in prison. In Idaho over the past year there have been a number of lawsuits filed by prisoners and lawyers on their behalf for damages they received when the prison failed to protect them from other inmates. Many of the cases have value – and for lawyers representing folks in this setting, value is a critical part of decision-making process. How do we place a "value" – money value – on someone’s case?
First, I look at the circumstances that lead to the injury. In Idaho a person may recover for specific economic and medical losses as well as "general damages." The general damages component refers to the sum of money that will compensate you for your pain and suffering – that is in addition to out of pocket lost earnings or medical expenses. A person in prison will likely have very limited economic loss when compared to a non-prisoner plaintiff in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. They may have the loss of future earnings, but those prison jobs do not pay much while an inmate is serving time. The same is usually true of the medical damages. Medical treatment may have been provided by the State as part of its duties to an inmate.
General damages are limited by Idaho law. The number today is approximately $270,000 (adjusted for inflation). Our legislators apparently do not trust Idaho juries enough to let them decide how much money to award in a damages case. They have artificially set a cap or limit, in the wild eyed hope that our insurance premiums would go down. Check out your last three years insurance cost – has it gone down? I don’t think so!
Next, I assess the likelihood that the case can be settled without a trial. Most cases do not get tried, but they often settle on the courthouse steps. That means that the lawyer has to spend the time to get ready and pay the costs of hiring expert witnesses, conducting discovery and investigating the clients’ claims.
Finally, I get real. You need to do the same thing with your case.
Ask yourself what you would award if you were a juror. A case I recently rejected contained this assessment by the person who wanted me to be his lawyer:
"There is a similar case filed in Boise in which there are 30 plaintiffs who have sued for $120 million, so my share should be $4 million."
Probably not. It is a mistake to assume that your case will have a particular value based on what others have received, or more importantly – what others have sued for. That $120 million number in my example is meaningless. If each of the 30 plaintiffs received the maximum $270,000 for general damages, the total value of the 30 cases excluding special damages (lost earnings, medical costs, future lost earnings and medical costs) would be $8.1 million. And that assumes everyone’s case gets the same amount, which is also not likely.
The real value of your case is seldom as high as you want to believe. Thirty years of doing this has taught me that it is usually less than I expect it to be.
Trying to evaluate what your damages are in a potential civil case? Whether the case is for personal injury, wrongful death, civil rights violations or fraud, your damages are very individual and the value of the case will likely be difficult to predict. You need to take into consideration a lot of individual factors – including where the case will be tried (Boise or Bonners Ferry) and who will be trying it.
Don’t get swayed by TV lawyers who proudly claim that they got "$300,000 for John’s auto accident injuries." Your case may be nothing like "John’s" and that lawyer may have taken $300,000 for a $3,000,000 case.
Most importantly – shop around. You have time. Don’t be afraid to make more than "one call," and do not hesitate to talk to many lawyers about the facts of your case. Finding the right lawyer is too important to do otherwise.