By Gregory Haubrich
Attorney at Law
Everybody thinks a lawsuit is all about antagonism and lawyers and people fighting with each other. And yet we have this peculiar term in my profession: “Friendly Suit”.
I told a friend recently that I was going to Court for a “friendly suit” and she started laughing and choking. “Friendly suit!!! You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!!!”
What we lawyers call a Friendly suit generally has to do with is representation and settlement of children’s claims. In Oklahoma you are an adult when you reach the age of majority: eighteen. I’m not really sure how they derived that age. ( I personally have yet to become an adult, even though I am 61. ) However, the law holds me to the standard of being an adult and capable of making rational decisions until I am decrepit and no longer able to do so, since I am WAAYY over 18.
Children, including young adults, get special protection from the law. One of those results in the “friendly suit”. The law requires us to bring any settlement on behalf of a minor in front of a judge to decide two things: first, is the settlement in the best interest of the child? and second, if so, to approve the settlement and order the child’s money to be put in a federally insured savings account, not to be withdrawn until the child turns 18.
Since children are not adults — duh — they cannot sue in their own names. They are considered to be legally incompetent and incapable of making their own legal decisions. When I file a case on behalf of a child the caption of the Petition reads something like this: “Mona Smith, Mother and Next Friend of Cheryl Smith, a Minor, Plaintiff, vs. Blowhard Eberhardt, Defendant.” Technically, the parent is my client. The parent signs the retainer agreement; the parent is named as the person bringing the suit; and the parent makes the decisions about whether to settle.
However, despite the technicalities, I always consider the child to be my client. When I represent a minor, my job is to do the very best that I can for that minor, whether a one-year-old or just about to turn 18. The parent has the same responsibility, four square: to make decisions on behalf of the child which the parent thinks are in the best interest of the child. If the minor is a teenager, I try to involve her in the evaluation process so she can help her parents decide what to do. After all, most kids are pretty smart, and if they get to participate in the decision some of their suffering is validated.
In the Friendly Suit the defense lawyer is there and brings settlement checks. The parent must be there, and the minor may be there. The judge will hear brief testimony about how the injury occurred; the type of injury; the settlement agreement; whether our client is satisfied with our services and wants our fees and expenses to be approved; and that the parent realizes he is giving up his child’s right to bring a jury case in which the son or daughter may get more, or less, or nothing at all. After that testimony, the judge usually enters orders approving the settlement, distribution of funds, and for the money to be deposited in a banking institution. The child’s attorney must file a Receipt from the bank, verifying to the Court that the deposit has been made.
The reason we do this is that even well-meaning parents have a hard time segregating money their children received in compensation for an injury from their personal family finances. If the child has money in the bank and needs a new bike, or bed, or Nintendo, why not use the money in the bank? After all, it’s for the child’s welfare, isn’t it? Everything you need for your family can be justified legitimately as being in the child’s welfare, even if it is something for the whole family — like a remodeling job, or a family vacation, or a boat for the family to go spend family time on. Then, pretty soon, the kid’s money is gone.
In the early 1970s these statutes were passed to help protect children and their assets. After all, the parents already have the obligation to feed, clothe, educate, and house the child. It is fair to expect them to continue to honor those responsibilities whether or not they have a child who was injured and has a trust account.
With these legal protections in place, when I settle a case for a child I know that the money they receive will belong to them and not be spent by their guardians. When they are 18 they can withdraw the money and buy a new car or whatever they want to do. In my experience most of them use it to invest in themselves, their education, and their future.
I always wish that children never have to get hurt or suffer. When they do, and we are able to get them some compensation, the “Friendly Suit” usually makes me feel like I have helped a family to invest in their injured child’s future. It’s one of the really great things we sometimes are able to do just because we are lawyers.