Legal: The Myth of the “Slam Dunk Case”
My office receives a multitude of phone calls each and every week from prospective clients with a wide variety of troubles. Inevitably, a couple of these callers will lead off with something like “I have a slam dunk case! It can’t be lost!” Those words from a prospective client always make me very nervous because if I’ve learned anything in my 23 years of practicing law, it is that there is no such clear predictability in any case.
While there are certainly cases that may seem simpler than others, there is no such thing as a “slam dunk” case. For example, think of a simple car accident case where a driver wasn’t paying attention and struck the back of the car in front of it. You may think that the accident is automatically the fault of the person that struck (“rear-ended”) the other car. However, under that exact scenario, juries sometimes find that no one is at fault.
So why do I believe no slam dunk case exists?
1. Juries. If your case makes it all the way to trial AND a jury was requested, a jury of 6 people (justice courts and county courts) or 12 people (district courts) are going to be listening to the evidence presented and will render their opinion in the form of a verdict. It is common for a case to take 1-3 years to get to trial, and the trial may only take a few days. That means all of the work that goes into a case has to be condensed into just a few days’ worth of evidence. The jury, with their own innate beliefs and perspectives, will then take what they get during the trial and decide the parties’ fate. Juries are notoriously unpredictable just as you would expect when you bring 6 or 12 random strangers together to make a decision about anything. No matter how strong you believe your case is, 6 or 12 random strangers (who have no connection to you) simply may not agree with you on your assumption that you are “in the right” for your legal ordeal.
2. Judges. If a jury is not requested, a Judge will decide your case if it proceeds to trial. Judges are individuals that are well educated and trained in the law, but that does not mean they will see your facts the way you do. Judges, therefore, can also be unpredictable in how they rule in any case. In cases where juries are involved, Judges are still the gatekeepers for what evidence is presented to the jury. Just because you have a piece of paper that you believe proves your case does not mean the Judge will allow the jury to see it; there may be valid objections to your great evidence. You may have a witness that you believe can prove your case to any reasonable person. However, the Judge may not allow that witness to testify, or may limit what the witness may testify about. The Judge is doing their best to ensure fairness for both parties to a lawsuit and when valid objections exist, you may not be able to present the exact case you think you will get to exhibit at trial.
3. The Rules – So Many Rules. Lawyers and Courts operate under an almost absurd number of rules at any given time. Civil lawyers for example, focus most attention on the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code and the Texas Rules of Evidence. Those three legal rules/guidelines alone contain hundreds of rules that touch just about every aspect of litigation. Beyond that are myriads of statutes that may apply to specific types of cases, and then you must combine that with the rules issued by the individual Court you are trying the case in (often called local rules). These rules dictate how a case proceeds, what happens when (i.e., deadlines), what evidence can be considered, etc. These rules will greatly impact what evidence is to be heard, what kind of damages can be awarded, etc. In addition to the rules themselves, there are countless exceptions and nuances to the rules that also may come into play.
4. No Money – No Win. A lot of potential clients feel as though they have a strong set of facts that will certainly allow them to win a case. And assuming they are correct, there is another factor to consider. Can you collect any money if you do win? Collecting judgments from Defendants without money is difficult, if not impossible. Laws protect certain assets from seizure, there is always a possibility of bankruptcy being filed, and in the end, if they have no money, then you will not be able to collect any money. Thus, you may go through an entire case and get a piece of paper signed by a Judge that says someone owes you money – but you cannot collect. That slam dunk case just became a failure, NOT a victory.
5. The Other Side. I often find that when one thinks there is no way they can lose, the other party thinks the very same thing. Both parties are failing to look at their cases from multiple perspectives. What if someone doesn’t believe this one piece of evidence? What if the Judge doesn’t allow me to play that recording at trial? What if one of the jurors is just having a bad day and doesn’t take the time to look at all of the evidence? You can bet the other party in the lawsuit is going to do its very best to ensure that you do not win and if you are overconfident, you may not be ready to properly address their defenses.
These are just a few of the reasons why I do not believe in the “slam dunk” case. There is an enormous difference between confidence and claiming to have a “slam dunk” case. I am very confident in all of my cases, but I do not consider any case to be a victory until I can hand my client a check that they can take to the bank. Until that time, a lawsuit is a field of land mines that you have to carefully navigate to get to the desired end result.
In closing, before declaring your own case a “slam dunk” take a step back and really think about how others may see your case, how complete strangers (i.e., future jurors for your case) may view your case, and understand that there may be rules and procedures that limit your ability to present the evidence you want during your trial. While confidence in your case is a positive, over confidence can render you vulnerable to losing.