Complaints department

As a lawyer who defends serial litigation involving hundreds of thousands of individual lawsuits, I’ve seen a lot of complaints. They are mostly low-grade work, obviously created merely to cover the bases of the relevant mandatory legal pleading requirements, and often just as obviously cut-and-pasted from prior complaints. Complaints deserve more attention. Your judge will probably take a look at it at some point, and every filing is a chance to persuade. Your opponent, and perhaps more importantly your opponent’s client, will probably read it, and showing strength to them may improve your chances of settlement. And in some cases, the complaint will get much wider reading than that. Today we look at an example: the $10-billion class-action complaint filed last week against General Motors, claiming that multiple GM recalls have lowered the value of all GM cars.

Any lengthy legal document should have a table of contents to help readers find different parts of the document and—more importantly—to lay out the whole argument in a compelling way up front. The GM complaint does a pretty good job of this. For example, this excerpt from the facts section piles on defect after defect, persuading by repetition.

GM complaint TOC

The effect is marred by bad editing. Lists of similar elements must be parallel. If it’s “the” xyz defect in (1) and (2), it needs to be “the” defect again in (3). And you can’t change your capitalization scheme from sentence case to title case partway through the list, as at (8) here. Item (10), to maintain parallelism, should read “The 26 other defects revealed by GM in recalls during the first 5½ months of 2014.” Finally, while we’re paying attention to formatting, the hanging single word “Quality” in (A) looks bad. “High Quality” should be kept together.

I’ve saved the best for last. The complaint is full of graphic images, making its points powerfully with GM’s own public marketing. Here are some examples. Take a look, and reflect on how much more powerfully the point is made by the image than by the bare text of the corresponding paragraph of the complaint.

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