Some years ago I read a story in Private Eye – one of the long, earnest, features they put at the back – concerning a chap who worked in middle management at a major oil company. According to the article he’d spotted some wrongdoing (environmental IIRC), complained to his hierarchy, and been told to forget about it and keep his trap shut. He decided not to and kept making noise, then eventually blew the whistle to outsiders. The oil company tried to buy his silence, then fired him. He sued them, and they tried several times to settle with five-figure sums. But this guy’s aim was to get the oil company in court where they’d be found guilty, heavily fined, and forced to apologise to him, so he kept rejecting their offers. Eventually the oil company decided to come down on him hard and destroy his life with endless lawsuits and delays. Private Eye gave us a teary-eyed account of how the chap had been unemployed for years, had been forced to sell his house, and now his health was failing. Well, what the hell did he expect?
The legal system is not the route on which to launch a moral crusade, and the courts not the place to grandstand. If you’re thinking of launching legal action against your employer, your lawyer should ask you right at the start what you want: to stay in your job unmolested or to leave with a settlement. If your answer is neither and you want to go to trial and force the company to apologise, the lawyer should spend the next several hours talking you out of it. You’ve got to have a pragmatic resolution in mind, which usually means a settlement in which the company accepts no liability or wrongdoing. That’s just the way it goes, and any lawyer will tell you that trials are dicey as hell no matter how solid you think your case is and how right you are. That’s why everyone works overtime to avoid them in such cases. For everyone’s sake it’s better just to collect the cash and move on.
Some people insist on being martyrs, however. Last week I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast with a Canadian chap called Phil Demers. Demers is in something like the seventh or eighth year of grinding litigation with his ex-employer, a marine life park in Canada. Demers was unhappy with the treatment of the marine mammals in the park and sought to expose them, and that led to his being sued and his counter-suing them. Now morally Demers might be right, but he has refused settlement after settlement, determined his case goes to trial so his former employer be denounced in public. He said he is frustrated with his lawyer who doesn’t seem keen on it going to trial (why he’s paying for advice he won’t listen to I don’t know). He also said he’s not interested in money, will accept no figure to settle, and only wants custody of a walrus he used to work with and which he considers his child. I can’t see that going down too well in court. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that, regardless of his bond with the animal and its poor condition in the marine park, he has no legal claim on it. He says he is flat broke and is looking forward to when this whole thing finally goes to trial (there is no date in sight) and he can put the whole thing behind him and move on with his life. I suspect he’s going to be waiting an awful long time, and if and when the trial comes he’ll learn the harshest lesson of his life.
I listened to the podcast aghast, thinking someone needs to knock some sense into this chap. Rogan did query whether he really ought to be doing this to himself, but remained very supportive. I scoured the comments under the podcast looking for a dissenting opinion, but they are almost all along the lines of “Yeah, don’t back down, stick it to the man!” What they didn’t seem to appreciate is that it’s not so much David v Goliath than a man whacking his head against a brick wall in a long, painful suicide attempt. Company executives don’t lie awake at night worrying about some individual suing them, they simply cut a cheque and get a lawyer to take care of it. And if the absolute worst happens and they lose in court down the line, they cut another cheque and use the loss to lower their tax bill that year. For them it’s a simple business transaction, much the same as a paying customs charges. Their only interest is to minimise the bill, and right and wrong don’t come into it. If you’re going to bring legal action against a company without realising this it will never end well for you, even if you think you’ve won. You really do want to listen to that lawyer you’re paying so much for.