When Chatbots Are Too Good To Be True
Do-It-Yourself is still dumb… even with A.I. assistance.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles with insanely optimistic headlines cropping up around the Internet in the last day or two. Here are some fun–albeit absolutely ridiculous–headlines:
“Chatbot lets you sue Equifax for up to $25,000 without a lawyer”1 (Lie)
“Equifax Lawsuits: How to Automatically Sue Equifax for $15,000”2 (Wrong)
“You don’t need a lawyer to sue Equifax–use this chatbot instead”3 (Wrong)
“DoNotPay chatbot automatically sues Equifax for free”4 (Lie)
“Equifax hacking victims are now able to use a free chatbot to help sue for damages”5 (Technically, kind-of accurate-ish…)
Okay, actually, that last one is pretty accurate. Joshua Browder is a British entrepreneur. He is the founder of DoNotPay, the first chatbot to allow motorists to appeal parking tickets automatically. Now, he’s trying to leverage the power of the chatbot to help people file small claims court lawsuits against Equifax.
“Damages awarded in small claims courts differ from state to state, with Tennessee offering the highest amount: $25,000. As Browder told the Verge, the goal is to ‘replace lawyers, and, with enough success, bankrupt Equifax’ through a deluge of small claims lawsuits against the company.”6
Browder even tweeted an audacious claim–that this is the first case of a “fully automated lawsuit”:The problem is that this claim, like the claims of most Do-It-Yourself (“DIY”) “legal solutions,” over-promises in a massive way. The claim, on its face, is patently false. The lawsuits are not “fully automated.” You cannot sue Equifax by pressing a button. That’s a flat-out lie.
What the DoNotPay chatbot does is prepare forms for you to file, yourself, in small claims court. Tennessee, where I am licensed to practice law, is the state in the U.S. with the highest cap on damages in small claims court. In our General Sessions Court, which has jurisdiction over small claims, a party may sue for up to $24,999.99 in damages.
While it is true that you can file a lawsuit in small claims court and represent yourself (“pro se“), that is a phenomenally stupid idea, when it comes to suing a massive corporation, like Equifax. Browder is counting on Equifax not being able to respond to all the lawsuits. In Tennessee, and many other states, failing to respond to the lawsuit may result in a default judgment being entered against the defendant–in this case, Equifax.
“If Equifax responds, ‘the first thing they will do is file necessary paperwork to remove the case from small claims court, because lawyers may not represent clients in small claims court,’ Matthew Sunderlin, a Michigan-based attorney, tells the Daily Dot. ‘Where it is removed to will depend on several factors, but assuming there are a lot of these things that Equifax has to deal with, they will try to remove all of them to state-level or federal-level court, and consolidate them so they can litigate them all as a group.'”
Now, in Tennessee, lawyers can represent clients in small claims court, but it is often deemed (by prospective clients) not to be cost-effective to hire a lawyer to represent them in General Sessions Civil cases, because the amounts in controversy are often quite low. This is not always the case; it’s a generalization. The important take-away point is, however, that more clients are pro se in General Sessions than in higher courts (i.e. Chancery, Circuit Court, etc.).
“As Sunderlin explains, any substantial response from Equifax would create ‘reams of paperwork to deal with just to keep the suit alive, let alone to properly pursue a claim.’ Further, Equifax’s involvement would mean the involvement of lawyers, which largely defeats the purpose of DoNotPay’s proposition. ‘No matter what … as soon as Equifax responds, meaning lawyers get involved, any unrepresented individual is basically sunk,’ Sunderlin says.
So, let’s say Equifax just ignores all the small claims lawsuits DoNotPay inspires. Plaintiffs can just sit back and wait for the check to arrive, right? Not even close.
In many jurisdictions, plaintiffs must prove that they suffered actual damage as the result of the Equifax hack, which exposed names, home addresses, Social Security numbers.
‘What the individual will have to argue is, effectively, Equifax had a duty to protect that individual’s personal information, Equifax failed to uphold that duty, Equifax’s failure caused that person to suffer harm, and that harm is known or discernible,’ Sunderlin says.
In his professional opinion, this assertion will be difficult to prove in court. ‘It is the latter two elements where the argument falls apart,’ he says.
To prove your claim that Equifax caused you harm—the basis for your lawsuit—you’d need proof that the information leaked from Equifax actually resulted in harm against you. Considering the seemingly endless stream of major hacks that have taken place in recent years, proving that data used to, say, illegally take out a loan in your name came specifically from Equifax would be difficult if not impossible.
‘The mere fact that Equifax leaked your information does not necessarily cause you harm,’ says Sunderlin. And even if you were able to prove that data leaked from Equifax caused you harm, you’d then have to make a case for how much money you should be awarded as a result.
Given the wide range of possible outcomes from state to state, it’s plausible that using DoNotPay to help you file a lawsuit could be successful. More likely, however, is the chance that you decide to either drop the lawsuit altogether or find yourself buried under a mountain of legal paperwork from which no chatbot can rescue you.
Rather than going through the trouble of filing a small claims lawsuit yourself, you’re likely better off joining one of the class-action lawsuits against Equifax, which will greatly limit the amount of time and energy required to file your own complaint.
‘Unless an individual has a really good set of facts to throw up against everything Equifax can bring to bear, the better option by far is to sign onto the class-action suit,’ says Sunderlin. ‘That option is much closer to the sort of file-and-forget that the chatbot makes itself out to be.’”6
I agree with Mr. Sunderlin, with one small caveat–filing a claim in small claims court and signing on to a class action lawsuit is not necessarily forbidden (at least, not in Tennessee). As the little girl in the Old el Paso commercial might say…
I guess the biggest reason not to file in small claims court would be that Equifax probably is going to respond to the lawsuits, insofar as they are able to do so. Some people might get lucky and get a default judgment, but that would surprise me. I think Mr. Sunderlin’s assessment of the situation is spot-on, and most people are going to be better off signing on to a class action lawsuit, rather than having to prove damages in court, which most people will be poorly equipped to do.
In any event, Joshua Browder’s claims about DoNotPay are demonstrably false, and would be laughable if this weren’t such a massive problem. This will be a historic legal battle, not because of a chatbot, but because it might be the single biggest lawsuit in American history.
1 Liao, S. (2017, September 11). Chatbot lets you sue Equifax for up to $25,000 without a lawyer. Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/11/16290730/equifax-chatbots-ai-joshua-browder-security-breach
2 White, W. (2017, September 12). Equifax Lawsuits: How to Automatically Sue Equifax for $15,000. Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://investorplace.com/2017/09/equifax-lawsuits-sue-donotpay-chatbot-efx/
3 Grothaus, M. (2017, September 12). You don’t need a lawyer to sue Equifax–use this chatbot instead. Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://www.fastcompany.com/40466548/you-dont-need-a-lawyer-to-sue-equifax-use-this-chatbot-instead
4 Wolff-Mann, E. (2017, September 11). DoNotPay chatbot automatically sues Equifax for free. (2017, September 11). Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/new-website-lets-automatically-sue-equifax-click-214730288.html
5 Brinded, L. (2017, September 12). Equifax hacking victims are now able to use a free chatbot to help sue for damages. Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://qz.com/1076175/equifax-hacking-victims-can-use-free-chatbot-donotpay-to-sue-for-negligence/
6 Couts, A. (2017, September 13). Think twice before you use that Equifax-suing chatbot. Retrieved September 13, 2017, from https://www.dailydot.com/layer8/equifax-chatbot-lawsuit/
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