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Article by Mohan Babu


Living in the land of lawsuits!

Most of us living in the US try to abide by the law and maintain a low profile. In such a situation, the most likely encounter with the law might come in the form of traffic violations such as speeding and accidents, observes Mohan Babu

‘Although lawyers and the legal system can be intimidating, the sytem here is designed to keep the nitty-gritty transparent to most of us’

Most software professionals, even those of us working abroad, are content to live our lives hoping we don’t encounter any skirmish with the law or law enforcement officials. Those of us who live abroad have a special responsibility to understand and follow at least the basics of law that governs the land. This is because of a basic doctrine of law — governing the legal systems in most modern nations — that says `Ignorantia juris non excusat’, literally translating to the fact that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Most of us living in the US try to abide by the law and maintain a low profile. In such a situation, the most likelyencounter with the law might come in the form of traffic violations such as speeding and accidents.

Traffic accidents are generally unpredictable and when they do occur, we need to be prepared. In case of an accident, both parties, regardless of who is at fault, need to exchange their name, phone number and insurance details. Generally a police officer arrives at the scene within a few minutes of the accident, notes all the information and gives a ‘ticket’ and summons to appear at the local court on a specified date. In the same way, one needs to be prepared if stopped by a police officer for speeding or other traffic inspection. Most roads have speed markers prominently placed and the enforcement is quite rigorous with automatic speed cameras and radars being increasingly used. For most traffic related cases, the procedures in the courts are very streamlined. One either accepts the ‘plea bargain’ or judgement, pays the specified fine and walks away. Or, in rare cases, argues the case in front of a judge. In most instances, except for DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol), traffic violations are not considered criminal offenses.

Of course traffic violations are not the only time people need to go to court. There were a number of well-publicised cases filed by Indians in the US that made headlines in the recent past.

You have probably read of the lawsuit by the Gujarati software engineer Dipen Joshi, who sued his employer for trying to enforce an illegal bond. This case was interesting for a number of reasons. Indians, especially those on H1 visas rarely lash out against employers.

Joshi had arrived in the US in March 1998, hired by a California based company Compubahn, which was supposed to contract him to work for high-technology firms in Silicon Valley. Compubahn has offices in Union City, California, and Woodbridge, Virginia, and its clients include Oracle and Sun Microsystems. For the first six months, Joshi was not placed anywhere. Then, in September, he was sub-contracted to another consultancy that placed him with Oracle. In June 1999, Joshi decided to leave Compubahn and join Oracle. Compubahn responded by demanding $77,085 from Joshi in damages for leaving before his 18-month contract was over. Joshi hired a lawyer in California who not only managed to blow holes through Compubahn’s case but also recovered a hefty settlement. According to the ruling, Compubahn had to pay $207,051.50 in legal fees and $7,999.11 for other expenses. For Joshi, winning the lawsuit did not entail big gains since his lawyer managed to pocket most of the $207,051, making some wonder if it was really worth the trouble. Of course the flip side of this case is the moral victory that Joshi won, giving courage to others in a similar predicament who could consider legal options open to them.

Another recent well-publicised lawsuit was the ‘McDonalds-beef-in-fries’ case. Last month, a couple of Hindus in the US filed a suit against McDonalds claiming that it misrepresented the presence of beef-extract in its fries. The company was under fire from Hindus all over the world who rallied around, shocked that a multinational could blatantly hide a fact sacred to most vegetarians. Details of any monetary settlement are unknown but the case resulted in a public relations nightmare for the company.

Indians in the US generally think of lawyers as being synonymous with immigration. Because of the complexity of laws governing H1-B and immigration most of us seek the assistance of immigration lawyers. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the local Indian publications, newspapers, magazines, Web portals and chat-boards. Almost every paper devotes at least a page for classifieds of immigration lawyers and attorneys.

There are times when individuals can also be at the receiving end of lawsuits. One must take all measures to cover all the bases. Most companies provide referral services to their employees, recommending good lawyers. Although lawyers and the legal system can be intimidating, the system here is designed to keep the nitty-gritty transparent to most of us.

People think of the US as being a land of lawsuits where people sue at the drop of hat but it is not really true. Of course, there are the odd frivolous lawsuits that grab the headlines but by and large the legal system is built to protect people from injustices. Of course, it helps when most people are aware of at least the basics of the legal system and the recourses available to them, as I said earlier says Ignorantia juris non excusat.




About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    For FAQ, Trivia and Information on Life in America, visit the Ask-A-Desi section

    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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