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On the origin of lawsuits

By Len Rieser on Feb 25, 2010 12:26 PM

Where do big lawsuits come from?

This is the Darwinian question that occurred to me last week when I learned about “webcamgate” (as some Lower Merion students have called it). That’s the situation that has led to a class action complaint in which a student accuses the district of spying on him and others in their homes, through cameras installed in laptops.

Another question that came to mind was whether it could possibly be legal for school personnel to do such a thing. But I didn’t spend much time on that one. Even though I am – ahem – a little rusty on the details of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, and other statutes cited in the students’ complaint, I’m prepared to hazard a guess. Spying on students at home has got to be illegal.

Everyone who has commented on the case seems to feel the same way. Even the Lower Merion School District, so far as I can tell, has said nothing in defense of spying. And I also haven’t heard the district deny that at least some photographing of students in their homes did occur.

But all of that just takes me back to my first question, which is really about how we resolve problems in this society. When I first read about the case, I wondered what the families involved had tried before going to court. 

I do understand – having been involved in quite a bit of litigation myself – that litigation is sometimes appropriate, and occasionally unavoidable as a way of resolving deeply-held differences. But this struck me as perhaps not one of those times, since the activity involved seemed so clearly indefensible.

Instead, this seemed an occasion for a visit by the families to the district; a swift, public explanation, by the district, of what had happened; an acknowledgment of fault (assuming the facts were as alleged); the adoption of new policies that would ensure that it wouldn’t happen again; and, finally, compensation to those who had been harmed. 

Why didn’t things happen that way, and why, instead, did a federal class action come into being? I can’t answer that, partly because the origins of the case are still not clear. I’m sure some will say that it was all the fault of lawyers (though my own experience suggests that lawyers rarely act without clients). But I’m not certain that that’s the right explanation this time, especially now that I’ve read, in the Inquirer, that two students brought the issue up to the administration months ago and got no response.

So we’ll have to wait and see. And admittedly, the question of whether this situation had to turn into a lawsuit is not the main story. But it’s an interesting side story because lawsuits, with all of their expense, delays, and adversariness, are not always inevitable. Rather, they can sometimes be avoided by forthrightness, responsiveness, and the will to try really hard to reach agreement rather than go to the mat. Somehow, those qualities seem not to have been fully present in Lower Merion.

P.S. Not actually sure what Darwin would have made of all this. But I do think he could have made a lot better use of a webcam.

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Comments (8)

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on February 25, 2010 1:35 pm

Thank you for this post. I have been following this "webcamgate" with great interest. I think this case provides a great civics lesson for students and their families. Your questions relating to how we resolve conflict speaks a lot to how we are a big litigation crazed society.

We think lawsuits first; ask questions later.

It is so bad, one of students teasingly said, she was going to sue Mother Nature for all the snow we've been having.

I imagiend if I did a lesson on Darwinian theories, some oposing students and families may want to make class action against Darwinian's estate.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on February 25, 2010 3:15 pm

Len - Looks like you're not the only one realizing that this in not just a minor side-story.

The Inquirer is now reporting that the family that sued is no stranger to lawsuits.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 25, 2010 5:36 pm

it is a fishy lawsuit. The kid was disciplinary for selling pills and a webcam picture is around. It is very likely the picture was circulating among kids and the school obtained it or was given a copy.

don't use the term spy. If the district offer free monitoring, many parents will sign up.

Submitted by on February 26, 2010 9:53 pm

I don't know...I'm not a big fan of lawsuits either and totally agree with your statement that we are a litigation crazed society. But this is pretty serious. You're talking about live cameras installed in computers that were most likely kept in the bedrooms of minors...

Regardless of the surrounding circumstances (i.e. how the picture showed up, where it came from) I the installation of the cameras in the first place represents a serious misuse of power by the school.

Submitted by Len Rieser on February 27, 2010 8:04 am

I see it the same way -- assuming it happened, it's very serious.  My probably-not-very-profound question is simply whether "serious" should have to imply "lawsuit."  It seems to me that, at least in some situations -- and this may or may not be one -- even serious problems can be successfully addressed, if people rise to the challenge, outside of court.  Imagine, for example, a school district that acknowledges that certain students, or groups, are being unfairly treated, and takes public steps to fix it.  (We don't see a lot of that, but it does happen occasionally, and it would be wonderful if it happened more often.) 

Or a doctor who admits malpractice without waiting to be sued (and a patient who accepts an apology and financial compensation without suing).  Or, to move to an entirely different level, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which apparently achieved some resolution of some of the worst human rights abuses in history, without lawsuits -- or, at least, without lawsuits of the sort we're used to.

When people are able to take these sorts of steps, I'm not sure courts necessarily have much to add.  At the end of the judicial process, one may end up exactly where one could have been at the beginning -- with an acknowledgement of fault, a change in policy, compensation, and so forth. 

I should add that I still do not know what happened in Lower Merion.  Perhaps the family could have done something different, perhaps the school could have done something different -- or perhaps they both did what they could to avoid litigation.  Still hoping we find out, because I think it could be a good lesson in educational problem-solving.   Thanks for your comment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2010 7:11 pm

People are often left with little recourse but to exercies their legal rights and sue. Often they are left with no other option. It is only in this case that people see upset that someone is suing the school district for what, if what is alleged proven to be true, egregious action. It is very odd that educated "professionals" would immeidiatly take to the loud speaker in a school and comment on pending litigation and disparage both the minor and his parents. In reality, it is highly unlikely that any resolution would come without a lawsuit. The parents were told that even though the student was not disciplined that the "event" would be put in his file. The parents told the school district this is unacceptable. The school district does not seem to care or want to listen. Not once, once did the school provide comment or discussion from parents regarding their laptop security procedures. When students (this student was not the only one who had concerns) they were told to go away. (there is an article that cites previous student government leaders ringing an alarm about remote webcams at this school) yet the school CHOSE to keep everything clandestine. There were months of lead up to this lawsuit, and no compromise on the part of the school district. Sometimes lawsuits are nessecary and unavoidable. Sometimes they are frivoulous and a big money grab. In this case, no moving forward would have come about without a lawsuit, discussion was not on the table- and if the school had not been so reaching in its authoritatian nature maybe it could have been prevented-although much good has already come of the lawsuit. Further, the idea that only perfect people can and should bring lawsuits is legal folly, and absurd. This child is not stripped of his constitutional rights because his parents may or may not have payed their electric bill. It is completely irrelevant- and I am certainly for people expressing their opinions- but I grieve for how many don't understand basic American Civics and simple law.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2010 11:14 pm

As a Lower Merion parent I am infuriated by the school district and its decisions (or just as badly, lack of decisions) on the webcam security program. But as a Lower Merion taxpayer, I am even more infuriated by the news that the "laptop family is no stranger to legal disputes" (see link above). All Lower Merion taxpayers will be footing the bill so that this family can chase down a payout from a public, not-for-profit (albeit well-funded) school district. WIthout a doubt, our teachers and students will suffer as a result. No thank you, but what recourse do we have?

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on March 3, 2010 5:34 pm

The Inquirer has been buzing with news about Lower Merion lately- it's schools, socio-ecomic issues, you name it. Some the news points back to the webcamgate problem. So with the lawsuite pending, I guess we can look forward to more coverage.

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