Middle Class Justice

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Let’s say I’m poor, and someone sues me. Go ahead, take me to court. What do I care? What do I have to lose? You won’t get anything out of me even if you win.

If I’m rich, take me to court. What do I care? I’ll throw so many lawyers and so much money at you, it’ll have you spinning down the courthouse steps.

But if I’m in the middle class? That's a different story.

Even with a solid defense, my day in court is going to cost me. There are legal fees, and -- depending on the issue or venue -- the likelihood of jury prejudice, so that in the end facts won’t matter. That 95 percent of civil suits settle out of court isn’t a sign of good will. The plaintiff, through his lawyer, has let me know the potential price of trying my luck in court. If I settle, at least I avoid the all-too-real possibility that a jury will award the plaintiff far more than I can afford.

I doubt many middle class defendants have the means to play that kind of financial chicken. Especially if the case involves comparative fault where, even if I win, it will still cost me something just to make it go away. Compromise is not synonymous with justice. The plaintiff may not get what he claims he deserves, but he won’t often walk away with nothing, even if you think nothing is exactly what he deserves.


No one will march on the courthouse to protest this unique disadvantage in legal matters – the inability of the middle class to either buy justice or ignore it – because the middle class is the champion of the status quo. Besides, as injustices go, unless you are the one facing it, it doesn’t look like a biggie. Call it, perhaps, an acceptable price for not being poor, for having at least something to lose, for the increasingly dubious privilege of being middle class.

What it shares with most injustices, however, besides animosity toward the actual perpetrator, is the feeling of helplessness, the frustration of being caught in the abuse of a system that should be supportive and that you support.

Richard Friedlander is a mediator, author and actor. He lives in the East Bay.