Think Very Carefully Before Filing a Lawsuit
Many clients come to me and ask whether they should file a lawsuit. While many of them may have valid legal claims, they often don’t realize the spiritual and emotional toll that a lawsuit will cause them. Even if you win a lawsuit, the costs – in time, money, and emotional stress – can greatly outweigh the benefits.
Recently I read two stories about how two people – Robert Kearns and Charles Sheldon – reacted differently when they had a potential legal claim. These stories illustrate perfectly the dangers of litigation, even if you win your case. The stories also illustrate the benefits of not filing a lawsuit.
Robert Kearns invented a form of an intermittent windshield wiper that is widely used on many automobiles. He tried to interest the major auto manufacturers in his invention, but at first, they told him they weren’t interested. Then, one auto manufacturer after another began installing Kearns’ wipers on their automobiles, without Kearns’ consent, and without paying him any royalties. Kearns decided to sue for patent infringement.
Eventually, Kearns filed over 26 lawsuits. His legal battle took decades. Although Kearns won millions of dollars from the manufacturers after judges and juries found that the manufacturers had unlawfully infringed his patents, Kearns suffered more serious personal consequences:
The lawsuits consumed the whole of Kearns’ time for many years
The Baltimore Sun wrote that Kearns “consumed every waking moment steeped in lawsuits…his lawsuits would come to dominate his life.”
A New Yorker article went into more detail about how the lawsuits took over Kearns’ life:
“Kearns represented himself against Chrysler and will do so again against G.M. His offices, Kearns Associates, are directly across the street from the Detroit federal courthouse, where his cases are tried. He can usually be found at his desk, half hidden behind heaps of motions and countermotions and books on trial procedure. The Associates are mainly Kearns’ family. He has six children, and the lawsuit has become the dominant event in their lives—and now their children are growing up with the case. The family is close, and the lawsuit has brought them closer. Four of his children have worked or are working full-time for their father. The case is what they do. None of them have any legal training. They have learned on the job to write briefs, service documents, and deal with maneuvers pulled on them by the hundreds of lawyers working for the Big Three. ‘For the kids, the lawsuit is all we’ve ever known,’ says Kearns’ daughter Kathy, who is thirty-one. ‘I mean, for us this is normal.’”
The Baltimore Sun concluded, “Last week, he simply shrugged when he won $21 million from Chrysler. … What Mr. Kearns wishes he had is the time he's lost.”
Kearns had a mental breakdown
The article in the New Yorker stated,
“According to Dennis, his oldest son, [Kearns’ hair] turned white all at once, in 1976, when Kearns took apart an intermittent-windshield-wiper apparatus made by Mercedes and discovery that the great German carmaker had apparently infringed his wiper patents.”
Kearns’ Washington Post obituary further describes his mental breakdown:
“In 1976, Kearns's son bought an electric circuit for a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper, which Kearns took apart, only to discover it was almost identical to what he'd invented. He had a nervous breakdown soon after.
“He boarded a bus, with delusions of riding to Australia and being commissioned by former President Richard M. Nixon to build an electric car. Police picked him up in Tennessee, and his family checked him into the psychiatric ward at Montgomery General Hospital. When he came out after a few weeks, his red hair had turned white.”
The Baltimore Sun article recounted, “except for a four-year hiatus, he has been in therapy ever since.” The Baltimore Sun article was aptly titled, “Millions of dollars can’t wipe away pain.”
Kearns lost his job and was unable to work
The New Yorker further reported,
“After his breakdown over the Mercedes wiper, he was unable to work. He collected disability from his employer, the Bureau of Standards.”
Kearns’ marriage broke down
Again, the New Yorker article:
“Phyllis Kearns stuck it out as long as she could. ‘We’d gear ourselves up for a hearing in ninety days,’ she says. ‘And then, on the eighty-ninth day, the phone would ring, and I would hear Bob screaming and yelling, and it would turn out that Ford had dumped a bunch of new documents on us, and the hearing would be postponed. Now, I had never heard shouting in the house before. My parents had never shouted. It got to the point where I just couldn’t take it.’ Phyllis left her husband in 1980. ‘Robert expected me to have the same focus he did, and I just didn’t have it.’”
Phyllis later said, "It had become an obsession … I told him, 'I can't stand this life.' He said, 'This is my life.' "
Ultimately, the lawsuits destroyed Kearns
Kearns’ son, Tim, summed up the consequences of his father’s lawsuit this way:
“I guess you could say the lawsuit has ruined my father’s life, but I don’t choose to look at it that way. It is his life. If there’s a tragic aspect to it, it is that my father has never invented anything else. It would be interesting to know how many people’s lives have been saved by the intermittent wiper, and how many more lives could have been saved by his next invention. We’ll never know, because he couldn’t let this one thing go. But he just couldn’t.”
Contrast Robert Kearns’ story with that of Charles Sheldon.
Charles Sheldon was a pastor in Topeka, Kansas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1896, Sheldon wrote In His Steps, a novel about a group of ordinary people who decided to live their lives according to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” (This novel became the inspiration for the “WWJD” bracelets that were popular a century later.)
In His Steps was originally published in the Advance, a Chicago newspaper. The Foreword to a modern edition of the book describes what happened next:
“Because the Advance had sent only a portion of the manuscript to the Copyright Office in Washington DC, the copyright was later declared invalid. Thus, because it belonged to the public domain, sixteen publishers in the United States were soon printing it. The editions then spread around the world—England, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, Bulgaria, on to Greece and India—in the end, forty-five countries. There is no way of knowing the total number of copies sold and the number of lives touched by the challenge of Jesus’s way of life. A conservative estimate would be over 30 million copies of In His Steps distributed, the world’s record next to the Scriptures. Although Dr. Sheldon realized almost no royalty from these remarkable sales, that fact never made him bitter. He felt that the defective copyright had been turned by God to unprecedented good.”
Who was happier, Kearns or Sheldon? Who lived a more enjoyable life? I think the answer is obvious.
In choosing not to file lawsuits, Sheldon was living by the question he asked in his own book: What would Jesus do? Elsewhere I have written, why, from a Christian standpoint, it’s often not a good idea to file a lawsuit.
From a legal and financial standpoint, Kearns was a winner. But, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, Rev. Charles Sheldon was the real winner. Sheldon knew that there are things more important in life than winning lawsuits and making money.
In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 says,
1 “When any of you has a legal dispute with another, does he dare go to court before the unrighteous rather than before the saints? 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you not competent to settle trivial suits? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary matters! 4 So if you have ordinary lawsuits, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? 5 I say this to your shame! Is there no one among you wise enough to settle disputes between fellow Christians? 6 Instead, does a Christian sue a Christian, and do this before unbelievers? 7 The fact that you have lawsuits among yourselves demonstrates that you have already been defeated. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 But you yourselves wrong and cheat, and you do this to your brothers and sisters!”
The counsel that God gave in the Bible still holds true, 2,000 years later. To find out more about how to follow Christ, click here.