You risk getting hit with sanctions if a court finds that you knowingly filed a lawsuit with malicious or frivolous intent. Though not impossible, it’s hard to get sanctioned as a self-represented litigant because judges often assume we don’t know any better. But if a court believes you know what you’re doing, there can be consequences to filing a claim when the law says you shouldn’t.
Take, for instance, a recent lawsuit against the five Supreme Court justices who granted marriage rights to same-sex couples last year. Austin Burdick, an Alabama attorney [you read that right], is suing the justices for violating their oaths to uphold the Constitution. I suspect he is either going to be sanctioned for silliness or committed to a mental health facility. Still, some frivolous claims could be worth the sanctions.
Here’s my short list of lawsuit fantasies:
- I’d like to sue someone for the dirty air and water I’m forced to breathe and drink. Individuals and companies make decisions every day to foul our air and water, with effectively no liability for the damage they do. Government regulators have not only failed to protect our common environmental heritage, but they’ve exempted whole industries from responsibility by taking the right to sue away from common people. We are left to pressure state and local governments to sue on our behalf, as in the recent U.S. suit against Volkswagen. But governments receive tax revenues from corporate polluters, so there’s a conflict of interest in shutting them down. Our environment would be a lot cleaner if the law recognized an individual’s interest in clean air and water.
- I’d like to sue the makers of harmful consumer products, like furniture polish and processed foods. Manufacturers sell the benefits of their products — shiny wood tables and quick, tasty meals — without warning consumers of the dangers. Certainly it can be difficult to trace a specific harm suffered by a specific person to consumption of a specific product. Nevertheless, common sense ought to make a company liable for putting nasty chemicals in their products without adequately warning buyers. But common sense is not common, as we’ve seen with over a half century of tobacco lawsuits.
- I’d like to sue equipment manufacturers for designing products with planned obsolescence, where they artificially limit product lifetimes to keep consumers buying replacements on a schedule. It’s happened with lightbulbs, automobiles, smartphones, pharmaceuticals… you name it. In theory, this practice ought to provide market opportunities for competing products with longer lifetimes. But the economics of predictable replacement purchases are compelling, so much so that entire industries depend on planned obsolescence. In those cases, the consumer has nowhere to turn. A collusion or antitrust claim against those industries ought to be available to consumers.
- I’d like to sue radio and TV producers for polluting the public airwaves. Like those who pollute our air and water, those who pollute our airwaves are accountable only to government regulators (like the Federal Communications Commission). They should be accountable to each of us, and we should let a jury of our peers decide their liability. Many people are concerned with obscenity, and it’s true that letting preteens watch television or listen to radio unsupervised is akin to child endangerment these days. But I’m honestly more concerned with those who dump stupidity into the airwaves, those who dumb down the culture. There ought to be a way to make those who use our airwaves accountable to public intelligence standards as well as obscenity standards.
- I’d like to sue people for being mean in public. Seriously, I’d like to penalize basic meanness. Like those who inject stupidity into the airwaves, there are too many people injecting ugliness into the culture. Sure, we can all condemn racial, ethnic and gender-related taunts. But I’d go further. I’d like to sue people who talk ugly about a person’s bad haircut or ill-fitting suit. And it doesn’t even have to be my haircut or suit, or even something said to me. People should be liable for spreading ugliness of heart like a contagion. I can’t begin to come up with a tort for this, but there ought to be one.
Someone with time and money to waste should consider filing these lawsuits, but that’s not me. With my history, I’d be hit with sanctions in a heartbeat, and I can’t afford them. I’d also be labeled a vexatious litigant and potentially banned from representing myself in the future. (Not a good look for a Courtroom5 co-founder, right?) Yes, we are already a litigious society. Yes, howls of “nanny state” and “thought police” would be fair critiques. And yes it’s true that courts should restrain themselves on political questions, such as those environmental and media claims on my list.
So I suppose it’s a good thing that we can’t sue people for everyday grievances like the ones I’ve listed, at least not without risking sanctions. But wouldn’t the world be better off if we could?
Share the fantasy claims you’d like to file in the comments below.