Can They Sue Me For That?
At some point in your life, you have undoubtedly heard someone threaten to sue someone else. Often times, the comment is made by an aggressive person and they might even refer to a lawyer friend or relative telling them what a strong case they have. If you have ever been on the receiving end of that kind of threat, then you may even felt intimidated and uncertain how to respond. So called “slam dunk” cases are a bit like unicorns and someone who thinks they have such a case is likely overly confident or doesn’t understand our legal system. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and people often file claims that are doomed to fail. If you do ever find yourself involved in a dispute that you don’t think should be in Court, then there are typically a few issues to consider.
Basically, almost anyone can file a claim suing someone else. However, that does NOT mean that they have a legal basis for their claim, much less a strong claim that is likely to succeed. However, some people with relatively weak legal positions will still sue for a variety of possible reasons, including bully tactics, bluffing, not understanding Canadian and BC law or, finally, the infamous “principle of it”. With respect to the final possible reason for suing based on principle, most experienced lawyers will generally tell their clients that principles can be very expensive. Often, after people actually experience the expense, time and uncertainty that can be associated with a civil legal claim, principles alone become much less of a compelling motivation to commence or continue a lawsuit.
Talk is cheap, but litigation often isn’t. It is pretty easy for someone to threaten litigation. It is also easy to suggest that they have obtained or will be able to obtain legal advice from a lawyer that they know for no cost. However, most lawyers don’t represent neighbours and acquaintances for free. Giving legal advice and going to court is how litigators make a living. Further, the neighbour lawyer talking over the fence to the other side likely wasn’t told all the relevant facts, much less necessarily have knowledge or experience in the particular area of law involved. When push comes to shove, a person that has threatened to sue may find that they are not actually going to get free legal representation, at least beyond the initial chat with their neighbourhood lawyer acquaintance.
Disputes worth under $25,000.00 must be brought in small claims, unless any amount over that $25,000.00 limit is abandoned. Further, some types of claims must be started in the Supreme Court of B.C., such as enforcing a builder’s lien claim. Whether a claim has to be brought in Supreme Court is important, because, parties bringing unsuccessful or ill-conceived claims in Supreme Court can generally be held responsible for paying the other party’s court costs. In small Claims Court, costs are usually limited to out of pocket expenses and filing fees, but not legal costs or lawyer’s fees. In Supreme Court, the unsuccessful party will also typically have to contribute to legal costs. Although court costs in Supreme Court typically only represent approximately one third of a successful party’s actual lawyer’s expenses, they can certainly still add up quickly. Court costs are intended in part to encourage parties to realistically consider settlement of disputes prior to trial.
In summary, almost anyone can threaten to sue someone else and file a court action. However, that doesn’t mean that there is a reasonable legal basis to sue, much less that the claim is likely to succeed. People who sue unsuccessfully can risk having to pay some of the other side’s legal costs, in addition to their own lawyer’s costs. Importantly, our legal system in Canada is not much like how the justice system is portrayed on American news, Matlock or Judge Judy. If you are facing the prospect of a disputed court claim, whether suing or being sued, it is likely worthwhile to get some good legal advice before things progress too far. Obtaining some objective initial advice about how the law could be applied to your situation can potentially save you a lot of future expense and stress.