Lawsuits, Alexander Hamilton, and the Cost of Principle
One of the most fascinating and regrettable episodes coming from the early days of our nation is the duel between long-time political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr. Burr, offended by a report that Hamilton had defamed Burr’s character, demanded that Hamilton disavow any negative statements regarding Burr or, alternatively, face Burr in a duel. Hamilton, who could not make such a blanket denial and but was also opposed to dueling, nevertheless agreed to the duel so as to not damage his reputation in the existing culture of honor. Burr shot Hamilton at the duel, and Hamilton died the next day. Hamilton’s honor, as he saw it, may have been intact, but was it worth the price he paid?
While dueling is no longer a part of American life, other contests exist where people sometimes feel they must take great risks in order to defend their principles. One of these is in the court of law, where people regularly spend thousands of dollars or more in the name of principle. Certainly such efforts are warranted in some cases. For example, where a family may have been swindled out of money by a corrupt company, litigation may help recover some or all of the money and also protect others from being similarly victimized. At the same time, some principles may not be worth the fight—or the further damage litigation can cause. To take one extreme example from real life, many would agree that it is impolite to be on a cell phone during a movie at the theater. But did such action by a woman justify a man (who paid for the movie ticket) to sue her for spoiling their date? Perhaps one can go too far in the name of principle.
When you are damaged by another’s actions, among many other things to consider when responding is whether the price of a lawsuit is justified. The answer will vary and depend to a large extent on each person’s particular circumstances, the availability of a legal remedy and the likelihood of success. The cost of a lawsuit will also vary depending on numerous factors, one main one being the amount of recovery you are seeking. In Arizona, a person may file a case in small claims court, generally without the need for an attorney, and expect to spend a relatively small amount of money, but the recovery is limited to $3,500. County justice courts can also adjudicate civil claims for damages of up to $10,000, although cases like this will generally take longer and cost more than a matter in small claims. The superior courts have jurisdiction for cases where the damages exceed $10,000. Cases in superior court can last for many months or even years and often cost tens of thousands of dollars if not more.
At the end of the day, will the duel in court be worth the price to be paid? That may be a question that can only be answered at the conclusion of the case. But before commencing such a fight, and even though you will not be risking as much as Hamilton, you are well-advised to weigh the different costs with the possible results in consultation with an experienced attorney.
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