The Cost of Victory: What Business Owners Should Consider Before Filing a Lawsuit in a Commercial Dispute

By Seth M. Rosenstein

A wise person once said, “Litigation is the basic legal right which guarantees every corporation its decade in court.”  While likely said facetiously, the fact is that business litigation often comes at great expense to the company and individuals involved.

The costs of vindicating and protecting a company’s rights – in time, money, disruption, reputation, and commercial relationships – along with the inherent risk and uncertainty involved in all litigation, can lead even a victorious plaintiff to ask whether their victory was worth the destruction it wrought. 

Undoubtedly, there are situations where litigation is a company’s best or only path forward in a commercial dispute, whether it is with a customer, competitor, or business partner. Sometimes, a lawsuit is the last resort after other attempts to reach a resolution have failed or the only way to bring the other side to the negotiating table. Other times, quick intervention by a judge is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the business. In those situations, your company will want and need an experienced and strategic litigator who stands ready to vigorously pursue your claims.

But even after the dogs of litigation have been unleashed, most commercial lawsuits settle or are otherwise resolved before trial for many of the same reasons cited above – the expense, disruption, and risk involved in entrusting the outcome to a judge or jury. 

That is why, regardless of the perceived strength and merit of their claims, business owners should think carefully and consider the possible negative implications of litigation before telling their attorney to run to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Here are three things to factor into your decision-making before pursuing business litigation: 

Even the Most Straightforward Lawsuit Can Take Your Business Down a Long and Winding (and Expensive) Road

Lawyers are sometimes accused of making simple matters needlessly complicated. But for attorneys representing defendants in business litigation, making things complicated is often a feature, not a bug. Part of the defense’s strategy, especially when faced with a strong or straightforward claim, can include using any means to make litigation as drawn-out, convoluted, costly, and painful as possible for the plaintiffs.

Unfortunately, the wheels of justice are extremely amenable to a commercial defendant who wants to slow a plaintiff’s roll. The system isn’t designed for speed to begin with, and even if your attorney does everything in their power to speed your case along, there are plenty of ways a defendant can stretch your simple case out for years.  

They may file multiple motions regarding various issues, most of which will require the submission of briefs and the time needed to prepare them. A lengthy briefing schedule could be followed by a hearing or ruling even further into the future, all delaying the suit’s progress until the motions are resolved. 

Discovery, the process of requesting and exchanging documents, gathering evidence, and taking witness depositions, also offers ample opportunity for delay and added costs. It can take a while and cost lots of money to produce a voluminous amount of material in response to a party’s request. Depositions may be held in distant locations and involve significant travel costs (including fees for the attorney’s travel time) and complicated scheduling conflicts. You may also need to retain paid experts to testify or prepare reports. 

But it is more than fees, expenses, and delays that can make discovery costly for a business plaintiff. Owners, executives, and employees who would otherwise be doing their jobs may need to divert their time, effort, and productivity toward handling document requests or preparing and sitting for their depositions. These disruptions should be factored into your litigation calculations as well. 

Of course, the end of your case may not be the end of your case if one side appeals the judgment, which can keep the attorney’s fees meter and litigation clock running and even lead to another trial.

There Are No “Slam Dunks” in Business Litigation

Just as there is no crying in baseball, there are no slam dunks in business litigation. When you put your fate in the hands of a judge or 12 random people sitting on a jury, there is no guarantee they will see your case the way you and your lawyer do. There is always – always – a risk of an adverse ruling, no matter how strong your case appears to be.

Not only may your company lose on its claims (while still being on the hook for attorney’s fees and costs), but it may be exposed to liability and a judgment if the defendant files and prevails on a counterclaim. And if a contract or statute provides that the losing side in litigation must pay the winning side’s attorney’s fees and costs, the monetary hole can be even deeper.

A Judgment Is Not a Check

For all the risk of losing that is inherent in litigation, there is an equally inherent likelihood your company will prevail on its claims and obtain a substantial monetary judgment against the defendant. But no matter how many zeros that judgment contains, it could ultimately be worth far less – or nothing at all. 

First, subtract all the amounts your business paid its lawyers from your judgment. That could shave tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars off that top-line figure. And those fees may keep coming if your attorneys have to spend time and effort trying to collect the amounts due from the defendant. Judgment debtors can engage in plenty of moves and tricks to hide assets and make collection efforts as difficult as possible. 

Of course, nothing makes collecting on a judgment more challenging than an insolvent judgment debtor. If the defendant is actually broke, even the most talented litigator cannot get blood from a stone. 

Again, as noted, sometimes litigation is the right or only way to resolve a business dispute despite the risks and costs it may involve. But before shooting first, you should ask your lawyer questions about the best path forward for your company, which may include pre-litigation demands, negotiations and non-binding mediation.

If you are involved in or anticipate a business dispute, please contact Ansell Grimm & Aaron Litigation Partner Seth M. Rosenstein