A three-legged stool is one of the simplest, yet most efficient devices ever created upon which a person can sit. A three-legged stool will never wobble, even if one leg is slightly shorter or longer than the other legs, because all three legs will rest upon the surface where it sits. The surface upon which a three-legged stool sits need not be perfectly flat, because a three-legged stool automatically conforms to an uneven surface. However, if you remove one of the legs of a three-legged stool, the stool becomes worthless. Trying to maintain your balance on a two-legged stool quickly becomes an exercise in futility. Eventually you will fall if you try to sit on a two-legged stool. The two-legged stool must be thrown away if it cannot be fixed. So how is a lawsuit like a three-legged stool?
The three legs on a lawsuit are liability, damages, and collectability. Like the legs of the stool, the three legs of the lawsuit need not be identical. Liability, damages, and collectability only need to touch the surface upon which the case will be decided. The court is like the surface upon which a stool will rest, and every trial lawyer will tell you, no court is perfect. As courts have often stated, you are entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial. Provided the three legs of your lawsuit exist – liability, damages, and collectability – the lawsuit will be successful. However, if any one of the legs of a lawsuit is missing, the lawsuit is worthless just like the stool with a missing leg. When a person contacts our office with the desire to file a lawsuit against somebody, I sometimes tell the person what a lawsuit and a three-legged stool have in common. Let me explain my analogy with a series of real-life examples.
LIABILITY: A man came to see me about an accident he had on a sidewalk in Cincinnati, Ohio. The man was middle-aged, walking near Findlay Market when he tripped on an elevated section of sidewalk caused by a tree root. The man fell to the ground, breaking his hip and crushing his knee. He required a knee and hip replacement as a result of the fall. He had very large medical bills and lost multiple months of income as he recovered. Being on a public sidewalk owned and maintained by the City of Cincinnati, collecting for the injuries to the man would be easy if I could establish liability against the City of Cincinnati for not maintaining the sidewalk. However, slip and fall accidents in Ohio are very hard to win. Ohio follows the open and obvious rule as to responsibility for avoiding obstacles when walking. In this case, the defect in the sidewalk was open and obvious to anyone focused on the surroundings. By not paying attention to where he was walking, the man tripped, fell, and was badly injured. Unfortunately, there are many cases from the Ohio Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Ohio finding that a city has no liability for defects in a sidewalk that were open and obvious. Despite knowing that the City of Cincinnati could easily afford to pay for the serious injuries to the man as a result of the defect in the sidewalk, the law provided no way to obtain liability against the City of Cincinnati. My client had damages, and the responsible person could afford to pay, but the liability leg of my three-legged litigation stool was missing. I had to turn the case away.
DAMAGES: A young man came to see me who had been in a motorcycle accident. He was riding his motorcycle on Dalton Street in Cincinnati when a lady pulled out in front of him from a parking lot. He crashed directly into the driver’s side door of the car demolishing his motorcycle and doing substantial damage to the car. Pictures from the accident scene looked horrific. No one could survive such a crash, I thought. Yet, here was the motorcycle rider telling me his story about how he was thrown over the handlebars upon impact, then flew over the top of the car, did a somersault in the air, and landed on his bottom in the roadway, completely unhurt. He could have been killed, and by all accounts, probably should have been killed. Instead, he had nothing more than a bruised ego. The insurance company for the driver of the car paid him fairly for the value of his motorcycle, but then refused to give him anything more for injuries sustained in the crash. He wanted to sue for nearly being killed in the crash. I turned the case away. Why? The missing leg on his lawsuit was a complete lack of damages. He was lucky to be alive but was otherwise uninjured. He only had a two-legged lawsuit. He had liability, and he had collectability from the insurance company, but he had no damages. Without damages, the case had no value, and was turned away.
COLLECTABILITY: Another example involved a single mother who called me to discuss a horrible accident involving her son. He was a minor who had been riding a scooter on the highway. A car turned left in front of him, causing him severe brain damage as a result of the crash. The driver of the car admitted fault. The child riding the scooter would require 24-hour care for the rest of his life. The driver of the car had no insurance, no assets, and immediately filed bankruptcy after the accident occurred. The single mother did not drive, so she had no insurance that would cover the injuries to her son. Here again, I only have two legs on a three-legged stool. I have liability because the driver admitted being at fault for causing the accident. The injuries to the son would impact the family forever and would cost millions of dollars to provide the needed medical care. But from whom could I collect? The answer was nobody. The driver of the car had no insurance, no assets, and filed bankruptcy. The family had no auto insurance that might provide coverage. My three-legged stool had liability and damages, but collectability was missing. As much as I wanted justice for this family, I could not help. I had to turn away the case as being worthless.
The three-legged stool analysis has served my clients well during my career. A select few people failed to heed my advice after I turned away a lawsuit because a leg on the three-legged stool was missing. For some, I learned later that another attorney took the case, took the person’s money, and then lost the case exactly as predicted. Occasionally, a person returns complaining about the money spent to obtain a bad result from the attorney who took the case. No one has ever returned to me to tell me that my analysis of the three-legged stool was wrong, and the other attorney had won the case. In other words, a person should put more trust in the opinion of an attorney who refuses to take your money after carefully analyzing your case, than an attorney who jumps at the opportunity to take your money just to obtain a bad result.
If you have a case that you would like to discuss, I am happy to go through the analysis of liability, damages, and collectability of the three-legged stool with you. However, if the case is missing a leg from the three-legged stool analysis, I am going to decline the opportunity to take your money, because a stool with less than three legs is worthless.