For the Defense

A seminar thrives on the public’s fear of being sued.

THE TRINITY ROOM IN AUSTIN’S Stouffer Hotel was filled to overflowing on a cold and murky Tuesday night. That the meeting room was jam-packed seemed to be a sign of the times—the $39-a-ticket crowd was there for a three-hour crash course on how to avoid getting sued. While ushers toted in chairs for latecomers, speaker Jay Mitton, an attorney specializing in tax law, cautioned us that we are all vulnerable to lawsuits for our lifetimes plus three years. And it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent—“You can go broke defending your innocence.” Even after you’re dead.

Mitton was on a four-day, four-city sweep of Texas, which leads in suits against bank boards of directors. “It is out of hand,” sighed Mitton, who warned his listeners that even a casual lunchtime conversation could turn into a major Maalox moment. Mitton reported a recent case in which a client was engaged in a chat about a banking matter. The naive diner’s comments were later repeated at a board of directors’ meeting, recorded in the minutes, and acted upon. When the deal went sour, he was hit with a suit charging negligent advice.

Members of the audience exchanged knowing glances and sympathetic groans. The group was made up mostly of white upper-class males. A lawyer seated next to me confided that he had never been sued but needed to know how to protect his assets in case he was. Next to him, a woman anxiously gulped water and described a lawsuit that was currently being brought against her and her husband. A surgeon announced, “I’m retired, but I need to know how to protect myself!”

Even the sanctity of retirement won’t offer immunity against a retroactive lawsuit for a bygone misdeed, Mitton informed us. Silly us for thinking the statute of limitations affords protection. The three-year countdown for filing a malpractice suit starts from the moment the aggrieved party decides that a physician may have done him wrong, Mitton disclosed—and he described a case of a doctor’s being sued for minor surgery he had performed 24 years earlier.

According to Mitton, lawsuits await you like land mines on a field of battle, no matter what career or pastime you choose—doctor, lawyer, bank director, even Little League coach. Mitton had suggestions on how to dodge the inevitable, but he is partial to the family limited partnership, which beats out living trusts, corporations, children’s trusts, irrevocable trusts, and business trusts for being judgment-proof. (Hint: If you have to ask how big your estate must be to effectively use a limited family partnership, then you probably don’t need one.)

Several hours wasn’t nearly long enough to learn everything we needed to know, so Mitton was also hawking books and cassettes for home use. The package was a steal at $395 (usually $995, marked down tonight only). Lots of people dashed over to the table where his books were lined up and lugged away their hefty purchases.

As I left the seminar and walked down the hall to the vast foyer, with its shining—and treacherous—marble floors and dizzily steep stairs that offer many exciting opportunities for mishap, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering, “Now what would happen if I were to slip and fall?”

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