People love to sue to protect their rights. According to the American Association of Trial Lawyers, as of 2013, the annual cost to the U.S. economy for civil lawsuits was $233 billion – or $809 per American citizen.
That's a lot of money, and – trust me – you don't want to get stuck paying any of it. But sometimes, it isn't the obviously illegal stuff that gets you in trouble. Sometimes, it's the most innocent things that lead you to getting sued.
Here are 25 seemingly innocent things you could say that could lead to a lawsuit. Take the time to protect yourself if any of these things come up in your business:
1. "You're fired."
Firing someone is more difficult than ever. Have a witness present and be sure you've documented everything beforehand if you're planning to fire an underperforming team member.
2. "A handshake will do."
Doing business on a handshake deal – instead of a careful documenting all of your arrangements – is a great way to get sued. Protect yourself by working with a lawyer who can create the necessary documentation for all your contracts and work arrangements.
3. "They'll ask if there's a question."
Misunderstandings are a key cause of lawsuits, and picking up the phone to ensure everything is understood can diffuse a situation. Don't assume they need to make the first move. Protect yourself by clarifying everything (preferably using that legal documentation I mentioned above) in advance.
4. "No one will think that's a conflict."
Conflict of interest is a broad area, and people can sue if there's even an appearancethat there might be a conflict. As an example, sitting on a council in the town your company operates in can seem shady, even if you don't do anything wrong.
5. "The business doesn't need its own bank account."
Co-mingling funds is easy to do in the early days of a company, but it can open you up to lawsuits later on. Keep your business and personal money separate and consider incorporating to protect your personal finances.
6. "Our basic security is fine."
Not having appropriate security to protect client and employee information will definitely get you sued. If something goes wrong, you'll be unable to prove you didn't know better – leaving you liable for thousands of dollars or more in damages.
7. "FMLA is the Friday-Monday Leave Act!"
Yes, there are employees who abuse the Family Medical Leave Act. However, making jokes with your colleagues about the act – which I've actually heard people do – is a great way to get sued by those who use the policy appropriately.
8. "If you say so..."
Being passive in the face of over-aggressive lawyers or plaintiffs will cost you thousands. Make sure you do your research, know your rights, and stand up for yourself. Instead of, "if you see something, say something," remember, "if something sounds shady, say something."
9. "Anyone who will help can be co-founder!"
In the early days of your business, you're trying to build a great team. I get that. But don't give up control of your company. Maintain at least 51% of the ownership and voting rights as you build your team, and make sure that the people you're giving other equity stakes to are truly the best fit for advancing your company.
10. "He would never sue me."
Assuming that, because someone is a friend or family member, you can work with them unofficially is setting yourself up for a lawsuit. Yes, they could sue you. Even without grounds. It's unsettling, but true.
11. "I switched to the dark side."
Even when said as a joke, a comment like this can be used against you in a lawsuit. When something is written in an email or blog, the context isn't always clear. You may actually be accused of being evil, even if the worst crime you've committed was telling a bad joke.
12. "Did you hear the one about the...?"
Although it should go without saying, not everyone thinks off-color jokes are funny. Sexist or racist jokes in particular should never be told in the workplace – or, frankly, anywhere else either.
13. "We're right, and we'll never give in."
Lawsuits are laborious and expensive, and even if you "win" in the end you really lose in terms of money and time lost. Sometimes, you're better off just giving someone what they want, rather than having them sue you (as sad as it sounds).
14. "Written policies aren't a priority."
Maybe you don't like written policies. Maybe you think they're a waste of time or that they make you less nimble as a company. Do them anyway. The written expectations will help everyone in your organization to stay on the same page and protect you from future lawsuits.
15. "They won't care if we fudge this part..."
If you have a written contact with someone, follow it exactly as written. If you're looking for an adjustment, contact the other party and write the new agreement. Making changes without written consent is a great way to get sued.
16. "My advice is..."
Giving advice about sticky situations without having the appropriate qualifications can get you in a lot of trouble. As a general rule, it's far better to stay out of it and recommend that your friend or relative talk to a professional.
17. "I'll share this negative article with my friends."
Just sharing an article that paints someone in a negative light can put you at risk of being sued. This is especially true on today's internet, where so many things are deliberately inflammatory and poorly researched. Avoid sharing negative articles if possible.
18. "Merry Christmas!"
Saying anything promoting a specific religious affiliation can get you sued if you're in a position of authority or power over the person you're speaking to. They can claim they feel intimidated if they don't share your beliefs, putting you at a legal risk.
19. "This restaurant's steak is terrible!"
Influential reviewers who write poor reviews of restaurants are being increasingly hit with libel lawsuits. While these suits are rarely successful, they cost time and money for all involved. In general, you're better off avoiding them altogether.
20. "I'm so angry, I'm going to leave a flaming negative review online."
Even if you aren't a restaurant, reviews can still get you in trouble. Yes, people sue about negative reviews. Remember that even if a lawsuit is frivolous, it costs time and money. Be honest, but reasonable in any reviews you leave.
21. "I'll say this just to my Facebook friends..."
Nope, you're not off the hook yet. Saying something negative about a company or person that hurts their reputation is libel, even if it's just your Facebook friends that heard it. The size of the group doesn't matter – saying something untrue is still grounds to get sued.
22. "My former employee was a poor performer..."
Giving a bad reference may seem innocent enough, but sometimes former employees come back and sue employers who do so. Although you'll likely win if your reference was factual, you'll still suffer an expensive case and a damaged reputation for your company.
23. "I'll tag my friends in these party pictures!"
When you tag someone in a picture that's unflattering, it can damage their reputation with their job and others. It sounds crazy, but you can be sued for this breach of privacy.
24. "This isn't really harassment..."
What you define as harassment is not the important part – what's important is how the victim defines it. If someone asks you to leave them alone and you don't, you can get sued.
25. "I can talk about my workplace to my Facebook friends."
Saying negative things about your workplace, boss, or coworkers on Facebook can leave you in legal hot water. Even if your comments are only shared with your friends, you may be breaching a contract regarding your employer's private processes or be committing libel as a result. The solution? Save your complaints for in-person get-togethers.
Thanks to today's overly litigious culture, it's unfortunately easy to get sued for saying something that seemed totally innocent to you. Avoid these 25 seemingly innocent things, and be sure to protect yourself carefully from legal action in any other situations that fall into this grey area.