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Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The trolls don't like your lawsuit -- just because

Social media have made it simpler to find like-minded folks willing to take a stand. The Arab Spring uprising demonstrated technology's power to spread the word and build networks of people aimed at pressing for positive change.

There's a dark side, too.

Witness what happened in December to some of your neighbors when we reported their decisions to head toward court to hold area governments accountable for potential negligence.

Flash mob meet digital lynch mob.

The immediate, bitter and personal attacks in the reader comments on HeraldNet contributed to one family's decision to swiftly drop its claim. The case, which is still being pursued by one family, explores whether the condition of a road maintained by Snohomish County played a role in a deadly accident that brought one young man's death and caused serious injuries for two others.

The dust had barely settled in that controversy when the parents of Grace Tam brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, alleging that there was inadequate warning -- read: few visible signs -- alerting people to the risk of ice fall from Big Four Mountain. The Tams' family hike along a gentle trail ended in the horror of a child being fatally crushed by an ice block that suddenly crashed down from above.

As with the earlier case, the Tam family and its lawyers became HeraldNet piņatas. They were accused by commenting readers of bringing a "frivolous" lawsuit designed to cash in on tragedy. Lost in the angry hubub, however, were facts, including how the family had kept back from the ice that day, and how they later spent months encouraging federal officials to consider steps that could reduce risk for others.

So when did it become cool to bully people who are peacefully pressing their cases in court?

A friend recommended I watch Susan Saladoff's film "Hot Coffee." It gets its name from that case most everybody has heard about: the multimillion-dollar lawsuit that involved a woman who used the courts to scam McDonald's after she spilled hot coffee on herself going through the drive-through.

As Saladoff points out, though, that isn't close to the facts in the hot coffee case, just the narrative most have swallowed.

Her film uses the coffee lawsuit as a starting point to argue that much of what has come to be believed wrong about the civil courts is the product of cynical spin aimed at protecting the bank accounts of powerful interests.

Along the way, those who would exercise their constitutional rights to seek legal redress have been recast as greedy villains.

"I think it is really sad that people are embarrassed to bring a lawsuit when they truly have a right to do so," Saladoff said in a phone interview.

It's true that when people sue the government they are suing us. But our legal system exists to give potentially unpopular facts, not feelings, the chance to be aired.

If we can't hash out the truth in courts of law, where is that supposed to happen -- in online comments at the end of news stories?


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