Legally Speaking: And the suit goes on ... and on

By John G. Browning | Dec 17, 2013

For clients on both the plaintiff and defense sides of a civil case, one of the most frustrating aspects of the legal system is how slowly the wheels of justice seem to turn.

Despite our best intentions and efforts to unclog the courts (rules providing for expedited trials, court administrative edicts that mandate cases be set for trial no more than 18 months after they are filed, etc.), things happen.

Parties are added; parties are dropped; new attorneys come in to replace the previous attorneys; witnesses get sick or can’t be located; new evidence surfaces; and the list continues.  And even when a case is “over,” it’s not really over thanks to the availability of appeals that can take even longer.

It’s no wonder that when I defended one of many parties in a complex product liability lawsuit that had entered its fifth year, the other defense attorneys were joking about which of their children would eventually get to try the case.

And while frustration with the sometimes glacial pace of the civil justice system has been around a long time, it was perhaps best captured by Charles Dickens in his 1853 classic Bleak House, featuring the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

The suit is a will contest set in the English Court of Chancery, of which Dickens held a very low opinion—saying that its own practitioners would advise others to “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

At the book’s beginning, the lawsuit over a huge inheritance has dragged on for generations.  As Dickens puts it in introducing the case:

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on.  This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no person alive knows what it means.  The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.

"Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.  Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit.

"The little plaintiff or defendant, who were promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.  Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffeehouse in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless."

Not surprisingly, by the time the case is actually resolved late in the book, it is only because legal fees and costs have consumed the entire estate—an outcome that reduces all the lawyers and court clerks to laughter.

So what was the inspiration for Dickens’ stinging indictment of lawyers and the slow-moving justice system?  According to a BBC television special, the fictional Jarndyce v. Jarndyce was based on the very real case involving the estate of one William Jennens from Suffolk, Jennens v. Jennens.

That lawsuit started in 1798, was still ongoing when Bleak House was published in 1853, and didn’t end until the case was closed in 1917—117 years later!  The litigation ended because—you guessed it— the legal fees and costs had exhausted the entire Jennens estate.

Had Dickens lived longer, he could have witnessed a number of cases that invoked Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

In 1923, France’s highest court ruled that “a Frenchman may not beat his wife,” ending a domestic violence dispute initiated by a Parisian woman in May 1872—51 years earlier.

In Ayodhya, India, a lawsuit over land used for a temple has raged on since its original filing in 1885—over 128 years!

Closer to home, we have the case of Myra Clark Gaines.  In 1829, the then-25 year-old Ms. Gaines learned that she was the biological daughter of Daniel Clark, one of the richest men in America.

Her efforts to prove her claim—which under Louisiana law would net her four-fifths of her father’s immense holdings—lasted over 50 years, attracted national attention, and according to historians, went to the U.S. Supreme Court 17 times.

In her book Notorious Woman: The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines, author Elizabeth Urban Alexander provides a compelling account of this “southern Louisiana Bleak House” and Gaines’ crusade against the executors of Clark’s will.

More recently, in September, a federal appeals court upheld a $14.2 million award for back pay for a group of former railway workers.  That decision ended a 44 year saga that began in the wake of a failed merger between Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad in 1968.

Thirty-two workers who had lost jobs and seniority they said they were promised sued after the two railroads finally did merge.  The new entity, PennCentral, claimed the men were not direct employees.

The case meandered its way through multiple sets of courts, arbitration panels, and even the federal Surface Transportation Board, before finally reaching the federal appellate court.

Now don’t you feel better about your lawsuit that’s been “dragging on” for two years?

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