An Analysis of Fee-Shifting Based on the Margin of Victory: On FrivolousSuits, Meritorious Suits and the Role of Rule 11

Lucian Arye Bebchuk, Howard F. Chang

NBER Working Paper No. 4731
Issued in May 1994
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics

We show that, when plaintiffs cannot predict the outcome of litigation with certainty, neither the American rule of litigation cost allocation (under which each litigant bears its own expenses) nor the British rule (under which the losing litigant pays the attorneys' fees of the winning litigant) would induce plaintiffs to make optimal decisions to bring suit. In particular, plaintiffs may bring frivolous suits when litigation costs are sufficiently small relative to the amount at stake, and plaintiffs may not bring some meritorious suits when litigation costs are sufficiently large relative to the amount at stake. We analyze the effect of more general fee-shifting rules that are based not only upon the identity of the winning party but also on how strong the court perceives the case to be at the end of the trial -- that is, the 'margin of victory.' In particular, we explore how and when one can design such a rule to induce plaintiffs to sue if and only if they believe their cases are sufficiently strong. Our analysis suggests some considerations to guide the interpretation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w4731

Published: Journal of Legal Studies Vol. XXV, No. 2, pp. 371-403 (1996) citation courtesy of

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