No one wants to be sued, ever. Most of us would rather resolve our differences through negotiation, communication and, failing that, arm wrestling, drag races or just about any other means.
Yet, when people get angry online, it seems to be that’s the first a lot of people do, threaten a lawsuit.
While you shouldn’t be reckless and infringe the rights of others, whether it’s copyright, trademark, defamation, privacy, etc., the truth is that you shouldn’t be too worried about getting sued, especially when you haven’t done something that’s clearly illegal.
As much as people like talking about suing one another, it rarely actually happens and there are several reasons for that.
However, to understand them, you have to delve a bit deeper into the legal process and see why it’s not used nearly as often as people might think for settling disputes online.
Reason 1: Cost
It’s not a hidden fact that litigation is expensive. In many parts of the U.S., $100 per hour is considered a bargain rate for an attorney and litigation takes many, many hours to even get off the ground.
For example, even a basic copyright lawsuit can take $10,000 just to get started and the costs only grow as litigation drags on, which it inevitably does much of the time.
Most people don’t have the resources to start suing everyone that they feel has wronged them and, even if they did, it probably isn’t worth the expense. Also, though some lawyers will take cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning they only get paid when you collect, those arrangements are reserved for cases where a payment is almost guaranteed.
At some point, litigation, like most things in life, is a cost/reward decision and the cost side of litigation is almost always very high.
Reason 2: Jurisdiction
If you’re having a spat online with someone else, odds are it isn’t your next door neighbor.
The modern justice system is built around a concept of jurisdiction, which determines which courts have oversight over which people/companies. That jurisdiction is built almost entirely upon geography and what city, state or country both parties are in.
Whenever people are far apart, especially in separate countries, the issue of jurisdiction becomes thorny. While it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, often times the would-be plaintiff has to sue the would-be defendant in their hometown, meaning that they have to get a local attorney and work through an unfamiliar court system.
But even in cases where it’s possible to sue and get a judgment closer to home, enforcing that judgment, meaning collecting any money, may still be impossible without taking legal action closer to the defendants home.
In short, the distance between the two parties often makes litigation either impractical or impossible.
Reason 3: Lawyers
Lawyers get a bad rap in jokes and in media, but the truth is that most attorneys are actually very good, very honest and very nice people.
Part of that means representing their client’s interests to the best of their abilities and that, usually, means keeping them out of court.
The truth is that trials are expensive, risky and usually not in the best interest of either party. It’s usually better to settle things out of court or, even better, before a lawsuit at all.
There’s a saying that lawyers who do their jobs the best litigate the least and that is typically very true.
Reason 4: Time and Headache
This one is fairly simple, when most people are in a dispute they want a quick resolution. However, if you go the litigious route and there is no settlement, if the case isn’t quickly tossed it will likely take years before there’s any kind of resolution and that says nothing about appeals.
The entire time the lawsuit is going on, it’s part of your life. You worry about it, it’s a cloud over your head and a burden on your shoulders.
Most people don’t want this, no matter how upset they are, and most attorneys know this and it’s a big part of why they motivate their clients to resolve things out of court whenever possible.
Why take on such a large burden when it’s much easier to just let things go? That’s what most people realize after they calm down.
Reason 5: Enforcing Judgments
There’s a big separation between what the law says someone can collect and what they can actually collect.
While judgment amounts are often eye-poppingly large, the fact is large sums are often not collected unless they are against large corporations or the very wealthy.
Even smaller judgments, such as $25,000, which is attainable in small claims court in Tennessee, is beyond the reach of many people.
To make matters worse, in the U.S., many, if not most, legal judgements can be discharged in bankruptcy.
In short, it’s possible to go the distance with a case, get a judgment against someone and still not receive a penny from it. In fact, it’s actually very common.
Just another reason why people and their lawyers hesitate to sue.
Is this to say you can’t be sued or won’t be? Of course not. However, it shows why 99+% of the people who threaten to sue you will never go through it. It’s simply not a practical way to resolve most disputes online.
The simple truth is that the reasons you fear being sued are the same reasons that others will hesitate, once they cool down, to sue you. While it’s definitely better to be the plaintiff than the defendant in most cases, it’s not easy or fun for either side.
That being said, you should still be careful online and do your best to not break the law and put yourself in a situation where you could justly be sued.
Not only might you find yourself in a situation where it is viable to sue you, you could also encounter the someone with the resources and the drive to push the case forward at almost any cost.
After all, it only takes one match of the right person and the right incident to make your life much more difficult. Though virtually none of the people who threaten to sue will go through with it, there’s no reason to tempt fate either.
The risk just isn’t worth the reward.
Jonathan Bailey founded and continues to write at Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft and copyright issues on the internet. He also manages CopyByte, a company that protects online content, and writes a regular column for BloggingPro.