Legal news you can use excerpted from Court TV's Cradle to Grave
Legal Survival Guide, the definitive consumer legal reference book
soon to be published by Little, Brown and Company.
WHAT KINDS OF THINGS SHOULD A PERSON CONSIDER BEFORE PURSUING A CIVIL
There are a few important legal questions you should ask. First of
all, do you have a valid claim? A valid claim is one where the
grievance can be resolved by legal action. For instance, say you
decide to take a cruise and the ship's captain gets a little tipsy
one night, running the ship aground. You are thrown from your bed,
breaking your arm and suffering a concussion. You would have a
pretty good negligence case against the captain and the cruise
company. But say instead that it was cloudy for the whole week of
your cruise, thwarting your planned dream tan. Unless the cruise
company had made a specific guarantee of sunny weather (which is very
unlikely), your disappointment has no legal remedy.
Next, do you have standing? To initiate a lawsuit you must have
standing, which means you must be sufficiently affected by the matter
at hand. In other words, you can't sue just because something bad
happens. Also, something bad must happen to you. For instance, you
can't sue your local paper for libeling your best friend. You also
can't sue a local developer just because a building he designed is
excruciatingly ugly. If, however, the building is next door to your
home and would block your light or somehow directly intrude on your
property, then you might have standing to try and stop the
Lastly, each state has laws, known as statutes of limitations, that
require you to bring a suit within a certain period after an injury.
The time limits vary from state to state and for different types of
cases. Some limits may be as short as 30 days, and they are seldom
greater than six years. In cases where the injury is not immediately
apparent (for example, a person has been exposed to a substance which
causes cancer many years later) the time period in which a person can
bring a lawsuit usually starts when the person knew or should have
known of the injury.
In medical malpractice cases, some states have absolute time limits
on how long after an injury a person may sue, no matter how long it
took the patient to realize the injury may have been wrongfully
Once you've considered these legal questions, the most important
question is whether a lawsuit can in fact solve your problem. You may
have a grievance with someone, but suing won't necessarily help.
Litigation can take years, and lawyers are expensive (though in some
cases you won't have to pay up front). The time, money and effort
involved in a lawsuit aren't always worth it -- even if you win -- so
you should objectively analyze your chances. Do you have evidence?
Witnesses? Can you prove the other party violated some legal duty to
you? Also, you should think about the personal effect of litigation.
The other party will likely try to discredit you and your claims,
which can be one of the more painful parts of the adversarial
process. You might also consider whether your case will draw a lot of
publicity, and if so, whether you want it.
Some Practical Advice: Life is full of frustrations, especially for
consumers facing big corporations and impersonal storekeepers. While
the legal system entitles consumers to certain rights and
protections, suing is rarely the most efficient way to solve a
problem. Your first step should be to contact the merchant that sold
you the goods or the company that manufactured them.
If you can't resolve the problem that way, write to the person in
charge of handling complaints, either at the store or the
manufacturer, or both. Give detailed information about what you
bought, including model and make numbers, what the problems are, and
photocopies of any relevant information, such as sales receipts,
warranties, contracts and canceled checks. State specifically what
resolution you would like, and give the company a reasonable time to
Send copies of your complaint letter to your local Better Business
Bureau, state consumer protection agencies, and appropriate federal
agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and even the U.S.
Postal Service (if you bought the product through the mail). Note on
your complaint letter to the company that have sent copies to these
agencies. When confronting a possible investigation from a regulatory
agency or consumer protection bureau, many companies will be anxious
to reach a satisfactory solution to avoid having a complaint on
If the company doesn't respond within a reasonable tiem, write again,
summarizing your first letter and asking for action or response. You
may also want to contact your local media's consumer reporters.
If the company still fails to respond, you may decide to pursue a
court case. It may be appropriate to pursue your case in small
claims court. Or you may try alternative dispute resolution. More
detailed information on these options can be found in the Legal
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