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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.


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 development.

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 caused.

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 respond.

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 record.

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 Survival Guide.

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