Back to the complaints department

Two weeks ago, we started to look at the $10-billion class-action complaint against GM filed on June 18. This week we’ll finish reviewing its lessons for students of good briefwriting.

The GM complaint was intended to be read. That might not sound like much of an assertion, but far too many complaints either aren’t intended to be read or their authors don’t know how to create a readable document. Flip through a run-of-the-mill complaint (or answer; they’re often just as bad) and you will find paragraph after paragraph of boring, highly-repetitive boilerplate intended only to cover every base so that nobody can say that the plaintiff waived anything. Any legal document worthy of being filed should aim higher: at persuasion.

The paragraph that follows is formed just from the first sentences of the first five paragraphs of the complaint. It doesn’t flow very well as a paragraph, because all but the first sentences in each paragraph that help to clarify and link are omitted, but notice how smoothly and rapidly the argument develops and how not one word is formulaic:

GM led the world and US consumers to believe that after bankruptcy it was a new company. GM was successful. GM’s image was an illusion. A vehicle made by a reputable manufacturer of safe and reliable vehicles is worth more than an otherwise similar vehicle made by a disreputable manufacturer that is known to devalue safety and to conceal serious defects from consumers and regulators. The systematic concealment of known defects was deliberate, as GM followed a consistent pattern of endless “investigation” and delay each time it became aware of a given defect.

Defining the class is always a challenge in a class-action complaint, as class definitions are vulnerable to attack in multiple ways. Clarity is important. Faced with having to define a class involving many different makes and models of vehicles (since GM owns Chevrolet, Buick, Saturn, etc.), the drafters of the GM complaint made the wise choice to include a table listing the cars covered:

GM complaint cars table

Including a table would not be a bold move in a scientific study, a quarterly report, a textbook, or a business plan, but it seems to be fairly revolutionary for lawyers, who will often struggle to express themselves only with text even when a picture, table, or some other graphic would be better.

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