How to sue a corporation

Recently a friend of a friend asked to be put in touch with me, saying:

I’ve been trying to think of ways to raise money so I can purchase land, and I thought of your friend from (highschool?) who sued a few large corporations on his own.

I’m thinking about filing a lawsuit against large herbicide/pesticide companies (Monsanto)… I would use the settlement funds to reclaim land, and restore ecosystems.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been approached by people who wanted to sue a corporation just like I did. Therefore I wrote a long, detailed reply, and I am publishing it here so that everyone hankering to sue a corporation can “benefit” from my experience. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer (yet) and this is not legal advice.

With no further ado:


Nelson’s guide to suing a corporation

My brief experience in suing a corporation was something of an accident of being in the right place at the right time, and was in the field of copyright law rather than environmental law. You can read about it in Mother Jones and get lots of legal detail from the EFF’s OPG v. Diebold page. I’m not sure how relevant my experience is, but I would give these general pieces of advice:

You need a cause of action

In order for you to have standing to sue, Monsanto has to have harmed you in some specific/quantifiable way (although not necessarily in a large, life-altering way). In my case, I helped publish embarrassing memos that Diebold wanted to suppress, they sent me spurious legal threats, and those legal threats resulted in my ISP taking my website offline. That was how Diebold harmed me, and I sued them over those spurious legal threats (and won, eventually). I do not know what your background is or what you hope to sue Monsanto over, but if you do not have a clear and convincing cause of action, you don’t have a case.

If you don’t have a cause of action and you’re aching to pick a fight with a corporation, my suggestion is either to search your community for someone who does have a cause of action and champion their case, or to place yourself in harm’s way, putting yourself in a situation where Monsanto is likely to harm you. In my case, I knew that Diebold had been threatening other activists who published the Diebold memos, but none of them wanted a legal battle. So I published the memos too, hoping that Diebold would also threaten me, and they did. There was my cause of action.

I had co-plaintiffs in the suit, one of them being an internet service provider who hosted a website that had also been threatened by Diebold. It was legally possible that I could have lost my suit but the ISP could have won with their slightly different fact pattern, so it was good for the movement to have multiple plaintiffs with different situations and therefore multiple chances to win. Therefore even if you have a cause of action it is still good to network and see if other people have a similar cause of action.

You need pro bono legal counsel

Pro bono essentially means “lawyers you don’t have to pay.” My personal lawyers came from the Stanford Cyberlaw Clinic, a project of Stanford Law School where brilliant law students led by their formidable professor handled my case. My co-plaintiffs were represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a non-profit kind of like the ACLU for high-tech stuff. They specialize in impact litigation, i.e. suing people, corporations, or the government in order to set good legal precedent. I found my lawyers by calling the EFF when Diebold threatened me. They told me they already had a lawsuit pending that I was welcome to sign on to, and they connected me with Stanford.

Once you have a cause of action, you should contact non-profits that specialize in environmental litigation and/or environmental law clinics at top law schools and see if they can help you find lawyers willing to represent you for free.

Make sure you know your goals for the litigation

Make sure you know what your goals are with the litigation, and that a lawsuit is the best way to achieve those goals. In my case, I wanted to set good legal precedent to prevent corporations like Diebold from using legal threats to quash free speech, and I succeeded and was happy. If I had been hoping to make money, I would have been unhappy. In the end I got $2000, which was enough to replace my laptop that I spilled orange juice on while traveling to speak about my case. $2000 was barely adequate compensation for the time that I spent on the lawsuit and the resulting publicity. I would have made more money if I had spent all that time working at McDonalds. Diebold paid out more than $2000, but it went to legal fees, i.e. paying my lawyers whom I was not paying.

If your goal is to see justice done or set a favorable legal precedent, then a lawsuit is probably a decent idea. If your primary goal is to raise money, a lawsuit is a risky and time-consuming way to do it. You might do better launching a Kickstarter campaign, playing the stock market, or getting a job ;-)

I hope that you find my thoughts helpful!

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