As Cannabis becomes increasingly mainstream, marijuana lawsuits will become more and more ubiquitous and marijuana lawyers will be forced to interface with our judicial system in strange and interesting ways. But what precisely does a cannabis lawsuit consist of? What does the process look like? This article will explore a marijuana lawsuit from beginning to end and hopefully provide the readers with a better sense of what weed attorneys will be (unfortunately) doing with greater frequency in the future.
The Objective of a Marijuana Lawsuit:
Two parties enter the courtroom to settle a dispute and the legal system’s job is to resolve the dispute using the tools provided by the legislature and judiciary.
The Marijuana Incident:
A vaporizer explodes while a cannabis enthusiast is enjoying his favorite bud. The Plaintiff is the person who initiates the lawsuit. The first question is whether or not the plaintiff has the right to seek relief from the defendant. When the plaintiff (in this case, the vape smoker) sues, he must ask the court to provide some form of relief that is recognized by the law. Such relief may either come in the form of money damages or an injunction. An injunction is a court order from the court, which requires the defendant to either do something or refrain from doing something.
To commence the suit, the plaintiff must file a Complaint, which is the document that articulates to both the court and the defendant what the case is about and what the plaintiff is seeking. The Complaint must state a Cause of Action. Simply, the cause of action is the claim that the defendant has violated the plaintiff’s rights in some way that is prohibited under the law, is therefore liable to the plaintiff for damages.
Here, the defendant will provide a written response to the plaintiff. The defendant (manufacturer of the exploding vaporizer) gives a response to each of the factual claims in the complaint. Fundamentally, the objective of the answer is to respond to allegations made in the complaint. In some cases, the defendant may counterclaim and argue that not only does the defendant not owe the plaintiff damages; the plaintiff owes me, the defendant damages!
The vaporizer company may choose to respond to the complaint by offering an admission to the accusation but qualifying that admission with a legally legitimate reason for its commission. “It is true that I am at fault but I had to do it because…” A judge/jury may not find this reason compelling and sufficient to exculpate the defendant.
During the discovery phase, both the defendant and plaintiff will have their marijuana lawyers seek relevant information from the opposing party. These weed attorneys will traditionally begin by requesting important documents, emails, and online order forms. The idea behind the discovery phase is to ensure that both sides have a sufficient amount of information to prepare their case before trial; simply, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant should get a jumpstart and win because of an asymmetry of information. For example, in our Product Liability case involving the malfunctioning vaporizer, the vape manufacturer will, of course, have more information about how the product is designed and manufactured - it is critical that the plaintiff has access to this information to fully prosecute his case.
During a deposition, a witness in the marijuana lawsuit is compelled to give testimony (generally) outside of a courtroom and with no judge present. The testimony is recorded or transcribed and often occurs in one of the marijuana lawyer’s offices. The deposition is not necessarily brought into the courtroom but is rather used to help flesh out the case and provide the seeking party with sufficient context and facts to marshal his case.
After depositions have been taken and other facts have been made available, it might become apparent that one side will necessarily prevail in court. In this case, the parties may opt to settle and avoid trial altogether. In the event that the parties do not settle after Discovery, the case goes to trial.
A trial, effectively, is the legal medium used to resolve disputed facts. Trials can be in front of a jury or judge, depending on the nature of the dispute and the type of relief sought.
Critically, marijuana lawyers may dispute procedural issues of the case, rather than merely the substantive issues brought forth by the parties. For example, the defendant’s cannabis lawyer may assert that the court does not have jurisdiction over the case and it should, therefore, be dismissed. If the defendant’s weed attorney can successfully claim that the court lacks either personal jurisdiction or subject matter jurisdiction, he will file a motion to dismiss which may be granted, EVEN IF the plaintiff deserves to win on the merits of the case. (I.e. “Even if everything the plaintiff said in the complaint is true and the vape company produced a faulty product … I the defendant should win this case because the court has no jurisdiction over me!).
Motion to Dismiss:
Under a motion to dismiss, the marijuana lawyer will move to dismiss the case over the jurisdictional issues mentioned above OR for failure to state a claim.
Motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim is in legal parlance often referred tethered to the term, demurrer. When asserting a demurrer, the moving party seeks to have the judge throw out the case from the outset as there plaintiff has no legal claim against the defendant under the law.
Motion for Summary Judgment:
A motion for summary judgment generally occurs after discovery and stands for the proposition that given all of the facts, there is no reason for the case to proceed to trial because the opposing party cannot possibly win. It rests on two critical assumptions;
- Material fact: none of the facts disputed by the opposing parties are determinative to the outcome of the case and the essential facts of the case are not in dispute.
- No Genuine Dispute Of Material Fact: A reasonable finder of fact (judge or jury) realizes that the cannabis case can only be decided in one way (and for one party). If no reasonable person would side in the favor of the plaintiff, then that means there is no “genuine dispute of material fact” and the defendant-vaporizer company will prevail. Importantly, a party may also for partial summary judgment; here, the party will move for partial judgment on one claim and let the other claims go to trial.
Ultimately, a Motion for Summary Judgment saves time and provides for a much more efficient judicial process – why go to court if there is no genuine dispute of material fact and as a matter of law, one side must inevitably win?
Move for Directed Verdict:
A Move for Directed Verdict effectively makes the same claim as a Motion for Summary Judgment but it occurs in the middle of the case and after the opposing party rests his case. Here, the marijuana lawyer will argue something to the effect of, “It is inconceivable that the fact finder can rule in favor of the opposing party given the information and case made before the court and therefore, a judgment should be issued now and in my client’s favor.”
Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict
Under rare and indeed extreme circumstances, the jury hearing a marijuana lawsuit may issue a verdict that the judge finds unconscionable and unenforceable as a matter of law. In this case, the judge may agree to a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict. Simply, the judge asserts that no reasonable finder of fact can/should have arrived at the jury’s decision and the judge may decide to rule in favor of the other party.
Marijuana Lawsuits – Here They Come
In many respects, marijuana enthusiasts and industry experts should be excited at the prospect of marijuana cases making their way into the judicial system - It means that the industry is evolving and companies and entrepreneurs are interacting in financially meaningful ways. Marijuana lawyers will continue to approach the cannabis space with traditional legal methodologies while dynamically adapting to the unknowns of a federally illegal product. We can’t wait to see where the industry takes us.