Over at PhilaLawyer, an anonymous (and largely humor-focused) part of the Rudius blog network, there are four ideas for "Shyster-Proofing the Courts:"

1. Immediate Mandatory Mediation
2. Allow Expert Witnesses to be Deposed
3. Give Frivolous Litigation Claims Teeth and Allow Expert Witnesses to Be Sued in Such Claims
4. Eliminate Referral Fees

First, let’s keep something important in mind: the bulk of civil cases involve automobile accidents. So in some sense we’re really missing the boat unless we’re talking about that specifically. That said, I doubt any of these would make a difference.

1. Immediate Mandatory Mediation

Because I work on a contingent fee, I would like nothing better than to settle cases as quickly as possible.. Settlement puts money in my pocket, does not require my own money put out on the street for costs and fees, and puts my client back on their feet, a particular concern in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. So don’t think I am ever the one driving the litigation.

Problem is, even a hypothetically perfect insurance company that promptly and fairly evaluates every claim, sets an appropriate reserve, and begins negotiation has multiple incentives not to settle early. The insurance company makes a return on every single penny in their reserves, a return that evaporates the moment they tender a check to me. The insurance company also typically starts blind on damages; they know a lot about their insured’s liability, but very little about my client’s medical expenses, lost wages, and the impact the injury has had on their life, and for obvious reasons the insurance company is not going to take my word for any of them. Finally, the insurance does not know how highly I really value the case. The only way they believe they can estimate my bottomline is by pushing back against me and seeing how I respond. Even at a firm with a strong reputation for taking cases to trial and for rejecting weaker (even though meritorious) cases, there is still a belief among insurers and defense counsel that some of the cases are "nuisance value" cases taken to maintain cash flow, with little expectation of a substantial settlement or verdict.

In the real world, the above analysis does not even happen at the insurance company until the case is ready for trial. The insurance adjuster, who, as a cog in a bureacracy, has the primary goal of demonstrating their usefulness to the bureaucracy by creating an extensive paper trail, frequently does not even bother to set a reserve for the case until trial schedules have been finalized. Similarly, the defense attorney, who gets paid by the 10th of the hour they spend defending the case, has little incentive to encourage a swift resolution of the case, thereby extinguishing a source of income and appearing feckless in the face of controversy.

Thus, by and large early mandatory mediation conferences will function as a subsidy for defense lawyers — by giving them something else to bill for — and a tax on plaintiff’s lawyers — by taking them away from their other contingent fee cases. At the conference, the defense attorney will have authority only for a nuisance value while the plaintiff’s attorney (who will be a junior associate, if the firm has them) will have authority only for the highest number the plaintiff’s attorney can reasonably demand. If there is some external force which could drive early settlement, that force will do so regardless of court intervention.

2. Allow Expert Witnesses to be Deposed

That’s already the case in the federal system. While it probably does reduce the need for trial because it puts almost everything on the table, it won’t do anything to cut back on litigation. The point about having experts who write bogus opinions expecting a case will never go to trial is well taken, but that’s already factored into our current system — if one of the sides thinks the expert will pull out the event at trial, they’ll just push the case straight to trial, extracting a favorable settlement while teaching the other side a lesson. Adding a deposition, which would naturally have to occur after discovery (as it does in the federal system), won’t really change that dynamic, it just slightly advances the time when the expert pulls out. There might be some savings to that, since it obviates the need for full trial preparation, but those savings would be minimal.

I don’t think expert witness depositions are a bad idea, I just don’t think they will result in any significant savings. Moreover, in cases worth less than, say, $100,000, expert witness depositions could have the perverse effect of making settlement less likely, because they hike up the costs of bringing the case to trial, thereby requiring the plaintiff and their attorney to raise the demand accordingly to protect the amount they get in the end, which in turn makes it less likely the insurer will meet the demand.

3. Give Frivolous Litigation Claims Teeth and Allow Expert Witnesses to Be Sued in Such Claims

Frivolous lawsuits are already actionable in most states, and are frequently acted upon right here in Philadelphia County. In Pennsylvania, there is specific statutory authorization for them under the so-called Dragonetti Act, named after the first attorney to get really walloped under it. The elements of such a wrongful use of civil proceedings suit seem reasonable to me:

§ 8351.  Wrongful use of civil proceedings

(a) ELEMENTS OF ACTION.– A person who takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another is subject to liability to the other for wrongful use of civil proceedings:
   (1) He acts in a grossly negligent manner or without probable cause and
   primarily for a purpose other than that of securing the proper
   discovery, joinder of parties or adjudication of the claim in which the
   proceedings are based; and
   (2) The proceedings have terminated in favor of the person against whom
   they are brought.

§ 8352.  Existence of probable cause

A person who takes part in the procurement, initiation or continuation of civil proceedings against another has probable cause for doing so if he reasonably believes in the existence of the facts upon which the claim is based, and either:
   (1) Reasonably believes that under those facts the claim may be valid
   under the existing or developing law;
   (2) Believes to this effect in reliance upon the advice of counsel,
   sought in good faith and given after full disclosure of all relevant
   facts within his knowledge and information; or
   (3) Believes as an attorney of record, in good faith that his
   procurement, initiation or continuation of a civil cause is not
   intended to merely harass or maliciously injure the opposite party.

42 Pa.C.S. § 8351 et seq.

If there is a way to improve these elements, I would love to hear it. I personally can’t think of any way of strengthening it without making it, at best, confusing and, at worst, a violation of the rights of due process and access to the courts.

As for moving against experts, there is always perjury. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine a worse idea than intimidating witnesses not to say what they really think. The point about this honest experts is, again, well taken, and I have tangled with my fair share of them, but such annoyances must be balanced against minor concerns like truth, justice and fairness. The best you can do now to retaliate against a lying expert is to report them to whatever professional organization of which they are a member, which hopefully have a deterrent effect against future offenders. I am loath to really encourage that idea, though, because by and large professional associations have a serious pro-defense bias, the natural result of a (perhaps understandable) desire to protect and shield their members from liability.

4. Eliminate Referral Fees

I have no idea how that would help anything. Plaintiffs lawyers bill on a contingent fee; if the case is meritless, they’re a waste of time and money to pursue. Indeed, referral fees in my opinion actually reduce the number of cases filed, because they cut into the fee earned by the attorney actually pursuing the matter, thus requiring the case be stronger and have larger damages than if the case been brought in directly. Moreover, if there really is a problem of "recidivist professional plaintiffs," what good would it do to eliminate referral fees? They’ll simply go to the same attorneys over and over or they’ll find attorneys on their own — they’re among the few people who really can find the right attorney for them on their own.

More importantly, referral fees serve a critical purpose in the civil justice system, introducing economic efficiency to an ordinarily inefficient process: the selection of a personal injury attorney by a nonlawyer. Corporate lawyers and clients don’t need anything like a referral system because, as part of their paying jobs, they interact with all kinds of attorneys and generally have connections that can set them up with the right person for the job.

Your typical Wal-Mart or Wawa cashier hasn’t the faintest clue about what to do when they get paralyzed by a drunk truck driver or when their spouse’s brain gets blown out by an overdose of Heparin. Most lawyers don’t even know to whom they’d turn in the event of a catastrophic injury. The referral system creates an incentive for the initial attorneys not just to half-assedly send a case away, but to diligently choose an appropriate attorney who can get the best result for the client.

Finally, and to me this is the most important function of the referral system, referral fees — specifically large referral fees — encourage attorneys who are not really qualified to handle large matters to refer those matters out to attorneys who are qualified. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been referred a case either because "it’s just too big for me" or because "after I filed suit, the defense attorneys went nuclear on me." That is a good thing; attorneys should have no hesitation to radio SOS when the waters get rough. Eliminating referral fees gives them an incentive to hold on to these cases and "do their best," which is frequently not in the client’s best interest.