Two of the students which sued Lower Merion School District over the District’s systematic and surreptitious surveillance over them by way of their laptops settled their cases:

The Lower Merion School District will pay $610,000 to settle lawsuits over its tracking of student laptop computers, ending an eight-month saga that thrust the elite district into a global spotlight and stirred questions about technology and privacy in schools.

School board members voted unanimously Monday night to pay $185,000 to the two students who claimed the district spied on them by secretly activating the webcams on their laptops.

The bulk of the money, $175,000, will be put in trust for Blake Robbins, the Harriton High School junior whose family brought the issue to light in February. Jalil Hasan, who filed his lawsuit this summer after graduating from Lower Merion High School, will receive $10,000.

The district will also pay $425,000 in legal fees to their attorney, Mark S. Haltzman.

So, what gives? How come the attorney walked away with more than double what the students got?

The answer lies in the nature of the claims asserted. In your typical personal injury case, the plaintiff can recover for their damages,  but can’t recover for the cost or attorneys’ fees for bringing a lawsuit. (There are, in theory, costs of trial or appeal that can be recovered, but they do not include attorneys’ fees and are rarely enforced anyway.)

That’s the so-called "American rule." In general, in the American legal system, parties are responsible for their own litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, regardless of whether they win or lose.

In the Lower Merion cases, however, the Plaintiffs brought several claims which, by federal statute, provided for attorneys’ fees in addition to the damages suffered by the plaintiff. :

  1. Interception of electronic communications in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act;
  2. Unauthorized access of an electronic communications service in violation of the Stored Communications Act;
  3. Deprivation of constitutional rights to privacy (under 42 U.S.C. 1983);
  4. Invasion of privacy in violation of the Fourth Amendment;

If the Lower Merion case had gone to trial, and the plaintiffs had won on any of those claims — and they definitely would have won on the first — then the school district would have been liable for all of the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees in litigating the case.

The settlement of the case reflects that eventual reality: if the School District had not paid the plaintiffs’ lawyer now, they were going to pay them later.

This case represents another example for why attorneys’ fees are so important: in addition to giving lawyers the incentive to bring cases where the wrong is clear, but the economic damages are minimal or nonexistent, the presence of attorneys’ fees also encourages the defendants to settle the case early, and thereby limit their liability.

In contrast, in cases without attorneys’ fees — like personal injury cases — the defendant (or their insurer) has every incentive to drag the case on as long as possible and only settle when they’re facing actual trial. The result: more money to defense lawyers, and justice delayed for injured plaintiffs.

But why did this case, where liability was obvious, cost so much? There’s a simple answer for that: because the School District litigated the heck out of the case. Their own lawyers, as of the end of July, had already billed $743,000 to the school district. I bet the final bill will exceed $1 million.

Viewed through that lens, Mr. Haltzman was downright frugal in accepting less than half what his opponents charged to fight him.