Legally Speaking: Show Me the Money

John G. Browning Sep. 8, 2010, 6:19am

In virtually all lawsuits that are filed, there is a section where the plaintiff can elaborate on how much he or she is seeking in the way of damages.

Most of the time, the lawyers filing these lawsuits put down a generic, catch-all sort of sentence indicating that the plaintiff is seeking an amount beyond the court's minimum jurisdictional limits – in effect, setting a floor but leaving the ceiling open.

Some litigants, however, adopt what I call the "Dr. Evil" approach.

Just as the "Austin Powers" villain quickly upgraded his demand to "one BILLION dollars" after his paltry million dollar demand met with derisive laughter, some people feel they need to attach a pie-in-the-sky dollar figure to their lawsuit.

As a result, we have members of the media trying to convey instant credibility to a lawsuit because an attorney incorporated some wishful thinking into his petition and pronounced it a "five billion dollar lawsuit" – all without knowing what the evidence shows or whether their legal theories hold water.

Journalists do this in part because they're reporting on what that party is claiming in damages, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, and partially because they just don't know any better.

There are those demands, however, that are newsworthy simply because the figures named are so outrageous.

In 2002, Silicon Valley businessman Steve Kirsch filed lawsuits against a company called for violating the federal law that prohibits unsolicited commercial fax-sending. Basing his numbers on's boasts that it sent three million faxes a day, Kirsch's lawsuit sought the federal statutory penalty of $500 per unsolicited fax sent, trebled to $1,500.

That came out to around $2 trillion dollars – enough money to take care, or at least put a really serious dent in, the federal deficit. Let's just say that there was no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

But Kirsch was engaging in penny-ante poker compared with some creative plaintiffs. Shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, an individual from Baker, La., sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for over 3 quadrillion dollars - $3,014,170,389,176,410, to be precise.

A quadrillion, for the math-impaired like me, is one thousand trillion – a 1 followed by 15 zeros. To put it into perspective, the entire gross domestic product of the U.S. was around $13.2 trillion the year that lawsuit was filed, so the demand made by this one person in one lawsuit was the equivalent of demanding that the country's entire output of goods and services be given to him for, say, the next hundred years or so.

For the more science-minded among you, think of it this way: the Milky Way galaxy has "only" about 300 million stars in it. If you stacked one quadrillion pennies, it would reach all the way to Saturn (now all you need to keep that plaintiff happy are 300 more stacks just like that).

How did the lawsuit turn out? Let's just say Forbes won't need to come out with a list of "quadrillionaires" anytime soon.

In August, John Theodore Anderson of Las Vegas, Nev., filed a $38 quadrillion lawsuit against a group of attorneys in Alpine, Utah. It seems the law firm of Shumway, Van and Hansen had a client who came to possess certain mining property in southern Utah after the mine's original owner defaulted on a loan.

When the client tried to sell the property, it found that Mr. Anderson had put a lien on the mine because the owner allegedly owed him money for "consulting" work.

That must have been some consulting, because Anderson slapped a $918 billion lien on the property. The law firm filed $10,000 lawsuit to remove the lien and clean up the title to the property so it could be sold.

Anderson's initial complaint for $918 billion asserted that the property was worth $36 billion. Taking 12.5 percent of that ($4.5 billion), Anderson asked in his lawsuit for actual damages of four times $4.5 billion, plus punitive damages amounting to 200 times $4.5 billion. Incredibly, he also claimed that "silence" on the part of the defendants would constitute a binding contract.

Later, after receiving the law firm's lawsuit to remove the cloud on the title to the property, Mr. Anderson filed a second complaint seeking $38 quadrillion – having multiplied the $918 billion by 204, twice.

Addressing the claims made by Anderson, including the far-fetched claim that silence somehow equals consent to his allegations, one of the attorneys, Douglas Shumway, said "Everything in that document is against our Constitution."

While lamenting the fact that litigation like this was costing his clients money, Shumway nevertheless remained positive, pointing that off the wall cases like this one provided his firm with experiences that most attorneys never get.

"This case, no matter how strange or funny, makes us better at our jobs because you can't just go A to Z," he says. "Mr. Anderson is throwing numbers and smiley faces into my alphabet, and I appreciate that, even though in the end I think he will be sorely disappointed with the result."

But if you're thinking that Mr. Anderson's $38 quadrillion plea set a record for most outrageous lawsuit demand ever, think again. That dubious title belongs to one Dalton Chisholm.

Last August, Mr. Chisholm sued Bank of America for $1,784 billion trillion dollars (a billion trillion equals one sextillion, or a 1 followed by 21 zeros). Why did he feel he was entitled to such money?

Apparently, the lawsuit involved supposed breaches of customer service, incomplete routing numbers and other issues that are hard to decipher. The federal judge who dismissed Chisholm's complaint called it "incomprehensible," and ordered the plaintiff to replead his claims with a better explanation or face having his case tossed out for good.

Compared to Chisholm's outrageously high numbers, our Hurricane Katrina plaintiff and John Anderson are mere amateurs; after all, a quadrillion is only a thousand trillion.

N.Y.U. mathematical sciences professor Sylvain Cappell says, "These are the kind of numbers you deal with only on a cosmic scale. If [Chisholm] thinks Bank of America has branches on every planet in the cosmos, then it might start to make some sense."

He might also want to scale back his expectations a bit.

After all, in 2008 the entire gross domestic product of the whole world amounted to only about $60 trillion, so if you ever hit that legal lottery for $1.7 septillion, you might run into a few problems trying to collect.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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