Christians, Mormons, and Lawsuits: Complex Choices

“When can a Christian or Mormon Sue?”

Knowing if or when to litigate is a difficult decision for any good Christian. The Bible at times condemned those who would use the legal system for redress (See e.g. Matthew 5, Matthew 18:15-201 Corinthians 6:1-8). However, when reading the scriptures relating to litigation, it is important to understand the context of the legal system and the world at the time and how the legal system has changed since then.

Legal systems have changed substantially during the past two thousand years. At the time of Christ, things like debtors prisons existed for people who owed debts (see e.g. Matthew 5:25-26, Matthew 18:30). Today, at least in the United States, debtors prisons do not exist except in certain compelling situations, like to enforce child support obligations. In the modern world, people are typically not sent to jail for debts. Additionally, legal mechanisms, like bankruptcy, are available to undo debts, verdicts, or judgments, and are available to most people. Homestead laws also protect certain amounts of each person’s assets from creditors. All of these modern mechanisms can protect people from creditors, including judgment creditors.

Additionally, inventions like insurance, which in modern times frequently pays for the defense, attorney’s fees, and indemnification (verdicts or settlements) for many kinds of lawsuits, have come into existence since the time of Christ.

Moreover, at the time of Christ, the political climate was quite difficult for Jews and Christians due to the Roman conquests and the governmental structure of the Romans. Furthermore, the separation of church and state and anti-discrimination laws did not exist in the same way they exist today. Because of these facts, getting justice “at law” would have been much more difficult for a Jew or Christian during those periods of time.

Similar political and legal difficulties existed at the time of Joseph Smith and early in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Redress from the available legal systems was often lacking, and injustice abounded. Partially for these reasons, many of the early church leaders condemned lawsuits and litigation.

Common Modern Beliefs regarding Lawsuits

There are two extremes in beliefs on when it is appropriate for a Christian or members of the LDS faith (Mormons) to sue: A common view shared among many Christians and members of the LDS faith when it comes to lawsuits is that litigation is inherently bad, and that it should never be engaged in; alternatively, a starkly contrasting but common view held by much of the world and even by some Christians is that there is no limitation on when a person should file suit.

Both of these extremes should be rejected by Christians and Mormons, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The book The Lord’s Way, which Elder Oaks wrote in 1991, discusses the fallacy of these two positions and gives some guidance and insight as to when filing suit is appropriate for Christians and Mormons.

Mormons and Lawsuits

For those who are unfamiliar with Dallin H. Oaks, he was a practicing attorney for many years, a law school professor at several law schools, Chairman of the Board for PBS, on boards of directors for many corporations, a president of Brigham Young University for nine years, a Utah Supreme Court Justice, and finally a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In response to the first extreme viewpoint that litigation should never be engaged in, Elder Oaks states that Mormon doctrine clearly says the opposite. In D&C 42: 79, 84-86, it states that people who have killed, robbed, stolen, or lied “shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land.” Elder Oaks clarifies that the laws of the land refers to the civil and criminal courts. Additionally, Elder Oaks cites D&C 134: 11, the Church’s “declaration of belief,” published in 1835, which states: “We believe that men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances, where personal abuse is inflicted or the right of property or character infringed, where such laws exist as will protect the same.” The Lord’s Way, p. 155.

Elder Oaks also rejects the opposite extreme of having no religious restraints of participating in litigation, stating that “although there is no absolute prohibition against [LDS] members… going to court to resolve disputes — even with other members — there are eternal principles that forbid such action in some circumstances and impose significant conditions in others.” The Lord’s Way, p. 169.

The conditions that Elder Oaks discusses, and the tests to determine whether an LDS member can litigate within gospel principles are as follows:

  1. Forgiving — Elder Oaks states that before filing suit, Christians should forgive, as we are required to forgive all men (D&C 64:9-10). However, he points out it that the commandment is not to avoid litigation, but to forgive. Forgiveness is related to the attitudes and feelings of the person who is bringing the suit. Sometimes such forgiveness will preclude litigation and other times it will not, but either way, forgiveness is always required. The Lord’s Way, p. 175.
  2. Pursuing Private Settlement — Before filing suit, Elder Oaks says LDS Members should avoid litigation, if possible, through every reasonable means of obtaining settlement, including potentially alternative methods of dispute resolution (like mediation). The expense of litigation and the emotional toll litigation takes on the parties make it a difficult path, and because of this, private settlement should be pursued first before filing suit. The Lord’s Way, p. 175-80.
  3. Eliminating Revenge — Elder Oaks also discusses the motive behind lawsuits. Revenge is never an appropriate motive for a Christian. The Lord’s Way, p. 181.
  4. Acting to Protect Others — Elder Oaks states that sometimes filing suit is right and even necessary if a person is genuinely acting to protect others, whether it is from civil fraud, sexual abuse, etc. The Lord’s Way, p. 181-82.
  5. Considering the Effect of Civil Actions on the Defendants — Elder Oaks cites the golden rule, and states that what we are suing for is typically not important enough to destroy others. For this reason we need to consider the effect of litigation on others before filing suit. The Lord’s Way, p. 182-84.
  6. Thinking of Responsibilities Ahead of Rights — The world focuses on what rights a person has, but a good Christian will focus on what responsibilities they have, including their responsibilities to others, as discussed in factor 5. The Lord’s Way, p. 184-86.

As you can see, Elder Oaks focuses largely on the motives, emotions, and the effects of lawsuits on both parties to a lawsuit.

Insurance and Lawsuits

The same principles are good guiding principles for all Christians.

In a routine automobile accident case, many of the concerns listed above are alleviated simply by the existence of modern insurance.

Most of the time, people who are involved in automobile accidents are not after revenge and are willing to forgive the person who caused the accident. Forgiveness does not usually need to extend to forgiving the debts created by the injuries in the accident because modern laws require drivers to have automobile insurance, and the purpose of the insurance is to pay for injuries, damages, and debts created by the automobile accident.

Private settlement is sought by negotiating with the insurance company, and even potentially through alternative dispute resolutions processes. If the insurance company is unwilling to value the claim sufficiently, then perhaps it is time to consider a lawsuit. However, private settlement is usually sought first.

Modern laws requiring insurance exist to help alleviate the burdens on Defendants in automobile-accident-related lawsuits. Future bad driving can also be deterred by litigating these claims when necessary. We still see people texting while driving, even though laws specifically prohibit this. Further deterrence of this conduct is needed.

Additionally, because the opposing party typically will have automobile insurance to pay for injuries, damage, and debts created by the automobile accident, the effects of civil lawsuits on the Defendants are substantially mitigated. While the litigation process can be somewhat involved and take some time of the Defendant, if they have insurance, then their insurance will usually pay for their defense (including their own attorney), and will also indemnify them (pay for the verdict or settlement).

When considering the responsibilities had, it is important to understand that the law was created in such a way that it will typically be insurance companies paying for the verdict or settlement, and it is the responsibility of the insurance carrier (who received insurance premiums) to pay these claims to protect their insured.

Conclusion

Because of the invention of modern insurance and the laws requiring drivers to have insurance, and because of the changes in the legal systems and laws during the past thousand years, lawsuits relating to car accidents have much less of a negative impact than any sort of litigation used to.

It is still important, however, for a good Christian or Mormon to forgive, to pursue private settlement, to eliminate revenge, to act to protect others, to consider the effects of a lawsuit on Defendants, and to think of your own responsibilities when deciding whether to file suit.

The Law Office of Gregory Wilder, PLLC keeps these principles in mind when litigating and advises clients regarding these principles while zealously representing its clients.

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