Understand your rights and options when you’re faced with a frivolous lawsuit
In South Carolina, the legal landscape is occasionally marred by frivolous lawsuits—claims with little to no legal merit that unnecessarily clog the court system and strain defendants’ resources. While these baseless suits may seem daunting, it’s important for those on the receiving end to know they’re not powerless.
Defendants have the right and the means to challenge and combat these claims. In this discussion, we’ll explore the nature of frivolous lawsuits in South Carolina and highlight ways defendants can effectively push back against them.
What is a frivolous lawsuit?
A frivolous lawsuit is a type of litigation that has a lack of merit. Often, these situations involve ridiculous attempts at gaining money when, in reality, the person who files has absolutely no case.
When a person files a frivolous lawsuit, there may be different reasons behind their motivation. However, often, it’s to harass the defendant or get undeserved attention from the media. In other situations, someone being sued for a legitimate reason might frivolously countersue the plaintiff as a form of revenge.
What are some signs of a frivolous lawsuit?
Some frivolous lawsuits are more obvious than others. Here are some common signs to watch for:
- Inconsistent claims. The plaintiff might make inconsistent or contradictory statements or claims that don’t align with known facts.
- Repetitive filing. The plaintiff might file the same lawsuit multiple times, even after it has been dismissed, without presenting any new evidence or legal arguments.
- Unsubstantiated allegations. The claims may rely on speculative or unfounded allegations without concrete evidence to support them.
- Excessive damages. The plaintiff might ask for an unreasonably high amount of money as damages, disproportionate to the alleged harm.
- Failure to follow legal procedures. The plaintiff might frequently miss deadlines, fail to provide required documentation, or not follow court rules and procedures, suggesting a lack of a serious or valid claim.
- Unusual or absurd arguments. The arguments or legal theories presented might be highly unconventional, lacking precedent, or based on bizarre interpretations of the law.
- Quick to settle. The plaintiff might be eager to settle outside of court at the slightest pushback, suggesting they might not believe in the strength of their case.
What types of lawsuits might be considered frivolous?
A frivolous lawsuit refers to a lawsuit that is brought without justification and has little to no chance of being won. Types of lawsuits that might be considered frivolous include the following:
- Baseless personal injury claims. A lawsuit in which someone claims to have been injured but has no tangible evidence or the injury is clearly unrelated to the defendant’s actions.
- Unfounded malpractice claims. Suits against professionals like doctors, lawyers or accountants based on actions that are within acceptable standards of practice.
- Nuisance claims. Suits that are filed just to annoy or harass the defendant, with the plaintiff having no genuine expectation of winning.
- Unsupported contract disputes. Claims alleging a breach of contract where no contract exists or the terms of the contract clearly do not support the claim.
- Unsubstantiated employment lawsuits. Claims of wrongful termination or discrimination that have no evidence or are based on events that are clearly lawful.
- Patent or copyright infringement claims. Suits alleging infringement where the alleged infringing item does not actually violate the patent or copyright in question.
- Groundless class action lawsuits. Suits that aim to represent a large number of people but are based on tenuous legal theories or lack of commonality among plaintiffs.
- Defamation claims with no evidence. Lawsuits alleging slander or libel where no false statement was made or there’s no evidence that the defendant made such a statement.
- Unwarranted real estate or property claims. Claims relating to property rights or boundaries where clear documentation or evidence contradicts the plaintiff’s claim.
- Vexatious litigation. Suits brought by a person with a history of filing numerous lawsuits with little legal merit.
It should be noted that the perception of what constitutes a “frivolous” lawsuit can sometimes be subjective. What one person or entity considers frivolous might be seen as legitimate by another. However, the court system, through its mechanisms and processes, aims to filter out claims that lack legal merit.
Are frivolous lawsuits illegal?
Frivolous lawsuits, while not “illegal” in the sense of being criminal offenses, can be subject to various sanctions and penalties in the civil court system.
These situations place a significant burden on the court system, which has its hands full with legitimate lawsuits every single day. Therefore, if a lawsuit is determined to be frivolous, meaning it lacks any legitimate legal or factual basis, the party or the attorney who filed it can face repercussions.
Do some lawyers seek out frivolous lawsuits?
The idea that lawyers frequently chase after frivolous lawsuits to quickly earn money is a widespread but largely misguided belief. In fact, most attorneys, especially those with a good reputation, are cautious about avoiding such baseless cases. Their reputation and credibility are essential, and consistently presenting frivolous cases can damage their standing in the legal community.
Additionally, many personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis, which means they only get paid if they win. Taking on a case with little merit presents a significant financial risk. Litigation is resource-intensive, and every hour spent on a meritless case is an hour taken away from legitimate, winnable cases.
What are the consequences of filing a frivolous lawsuit in South Carolina?
While the legal system encourages parties to bring their grievances to court for resolution, it also has certain mechanisms in place to deter and penalize truly baseless claims. Below are some of the potential consequences of filing a frivolous lawsuit in South Carolina:
- Sanctions. Many jurisdictions have court rules that allow for the imposition of sanctions against a party or attorney who files a frivolous claim or motion. These sanctions can include fines or orders to pay the opposing party’s attorney fees and costs.
- Disciplinary action against attorneys. Attorneys have an ethical obligation not to file frivolous claims. Violating this obligation can result in disciplinary action by the state bar or licensing authority, which can range from a reprimand to disbarment.
- Strikes against repeat offenders. Some jurisdictions have specific rules and punishments in place for litigants who repeatedly file frivolous lawsuits. After a certain number of these, the litigant might be barred from filing further lawsuits without first obtaining court permission.
- Bonds. Courts may require a party who has filed multiple frivolous suits to post a bond before filing new cases. This bond can be forfeited if the new case is also deemed frivolous.
- Legal malpractice. If an attorney continually brings frivolous actions on behalf of clients, they might face legal malpractice claims from those clients if the clients are sanctioned or otherwise suffer damages as a result.
Does business insurance cover frivolous lawsuits?
Sometimes, a frivolous lawsuit is not filed against an individual but against a business. Fortunately, business insurance, specifically general liability insurance or professional liability insurance, can offer protection against lawsuits, including those that might be considered frivolous.
Here’s how they can help:
- General liability insurance. This insurance covers claims of bodily injury, property damage, and personal or advertising injury (like slander or false advertising) brought against your business. If someone files a baseless claim under these categories, your general liability insurance may cover defense costs and any settlements or judgments, up to your policy’s limit.
- Professional liability insurance (errors & emissions). This insurance covers businesses against claims of negligence, misrepresentation or inaccurate advice. If someone alleges that your professional services or advice harmed them and sues, even if the claim is baseless, this insurance can help cover the defense costs.
However, in some cases, deductions may apply. Additionally, even if a claim is baseless and you win, the mere fact that a claim was filed can potentially increase your insurance premiums in the future.
How should you respond to a frivolous lawsuit?
If a person or business is the target of a frivolous lawsuit, it can initially be overwhelming. However, there are immediate actions that can be taken in response. The following are the best options for responding to a frivolous lawsuit:
- File a motion to dismiss. The first thing to do is to file a motion to dismiss as soon as possible. Don’t attempt to negotiate with the other party because this gives their claim merit. A motion to dismiss gives you the chance to have the court see the claim for what it is, which can help get it thrown out.
- File a counterclaim. If the frivolous lawsuit ends up being dismissed, you can file a counterclaim against the person for their bad-faith litigation attempt. However, it’s crucial to determine whether this is the best course of action by consulting a personal injury attorney.
- Pursue vexatious litigants. Vexatious litigation is plausible when a plaintiff repeatedly files frivolous lawsuits. In that situation, claiming them as a vexatious litigant can prevent them from filing in the future without a judge’s pre-approval.
Real-life examples of frivolous lawsuits
In 1993, Richard Overton took legal action against Anheuser-Busch, seeking $10,000 for alleged false advertising in their beer commercials. Overton argued that the ads, which depicted idyllic tropical scenes with attractive men and women enjoying themselves, caused him emotional distress, mental injury, and financial setbacks. He believed the advertisements implied that drinking the beer could bring about these dreamlike scenarios. However, the court did not side with Overton, and he lost the lawsuit.
In 2017, Jessica Gomez from San Bernardino County, California, filed a lawsuit against Jelly Belly, the jelly bean maker, alleging they misled consumers by using the term “evaporated cane juice” instead of “sugar” on their product labels. Despite the clear display of the total grams of sugar per serving, Gomez claimed the company committed fraud by not being transparent about the candy’s sugar content. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
Get help from an experienced South Carolina frivolous lawsuit defense attorney
If you’re facing a frivolous lawsuit in Columbia or the surrounding areas, you need a personal injury attorney with experience in frivolous lawsuits to help you protect your rights. Even without merit, these cases often end up monopolizing your precious time, energy and resources.
At Chappell, Chappell & Newman, we understand how stressful it can be to face such baseless accusations. That’s why our firm is committed to helping South Carolinians facing these types of cases take swift action to get the case dismissed and file countersuits when appropriate.
Contact our office today for a free consultation to get started.