In Leon Uris' 1970 novel "QB VII," a novelist is sued for libel by a doctor. The novelist portrayed the doctor as collaborating with the Nazis while he was held in a concentration camp during World War II.
The doctor prevails in the case heard in Queen's Bench Number VII, the courtroom referenced in the book's title. But the jury decides that even though the novelist exaggerated the doctor's role in the camp, his acts were indeed so heinous that the damage to his reputation is only worth one halfpenny.
Back when I read that book in high school, the halfpenny verdict struck me as the wisest decision ever handed down by a jury. Both men were in the wrong and both men lost.
Unfortunately, providing a plaintiff with this kind of comeuppance really isn't an option available to today's American juries and judges deliberating civil suits. Case in point a recent suit against the Seattle Police Department.
Four years ago Officer Jonathan Chin of the Seattle PD was cut off in traffic by another car that also ran a red light. Chin, who was in plain clothes and driving his personal vehicle, followed the car.
When the driver and passengers got out, Officer Chin detained them at gunpoint, ordering them to sit down in the middle of the street. Patrol units responded.
One of the passengers, Andrew Rutherford, stood up and moved when the patrol cars arrived. Officers tackled, subdued, and restrained him. In the scuffle, Rutherford sustained a head abrasion and he was transported to a local hospital. Rutherford was charged with obstructing an officer. The charge was dismissed.
Rutherford sued the city for $3 million. The suit contended that Chin and the other officers violated his civil rights by illegally detaining him and using excessive force to do so.
The case went to trial in May. After seven days the jury ruled that Chin and the other officers had not used excessive force on Rutherford and that Chin had legally detained Rutherford and the other occupants of the car. However, it also found that Chin detained them too long.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled back in 1968 that officers can detain someone on reasonable suspicion. However, it put limits on the length and scope of such detentions.
After the jury verdict, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman presiding over the case awarded Rutherford $1 in damages.
I know what you're thinking. Your minds are going to a happy place and your thoughts are popping tiny champagne corks and pouring drinks. "Hurray! The good guys won one for a change." That's what you're thinking.
But hold your celebration. That $1 damage award isn't as great as it sounds. Unfortunately, it means that the plaintiff's attorneys prevailed in their federal civil rights case against the city and against the cops. And that means that the judge has no choice but to order the losers to pay the legal bills of the winner. It's federal law in civil rights cases.
The tab faced by the taxpayers of Seattle is alarming. Rutherford's attorneys have asked the judge to approve attorneys' fees and expenses of $419,000.
I bet you think that's outrageous. Think again. The city's defense of the case cost $331,000. So the plaintiff attorney's bill is not out of line, and the judge will likely approve it or at least most of it.
Here's the scorecard for this mess: Cops hauled into court but vindicated, plaintiff received $1, and the attorneys probably will walk away with 700 grand between them.
The next time you or your agency gets sued and you wonder why your city attorney or police chief recommends rolling over, remember those figures. Our legal system is terribly stacked against law enforcement officers and for plaintiff's attorneys. The U.S. code itself specifies how attorney fees will be set in civil rights cases against cops.
That's why so many cases are filed against you and the agencies and government entities that employ you. Lawmakers—mostly lawyers themselves—set up paydays for their colleagues.
Now I'm sure they would wrap themselves in the flag and the American way and tell you that the attorney fees clause in the U.S. Code is all about making sure the little guy has the resources to hire attorneys and go after the Goliath that violated his rights. Maybe. But try justifying that to the people of Seattle and every other taxpayer who has been mugged by this "make plaintiff lawyers rich" law.
I could tell you that we should all march, call, write, stamp our feet, and get the law changed. But don't hold your breath. It's not happening.