How Some Prisoners Can Pursue Frivolous Lawsuits at Public Expense


Michael Witkin will be a California inmate at least until 2026, yet he has sued a car-repair-shop owner for $15,000 for the lost use of his transmission. The San Diego Union-Tribune says this minor civil case illustrates a major issue: the way inmates can tie up the court system with cases that would strike most anyone as frivolous. Their court fees are typically paid for by California taxpayers. “It's been very frustrating and costly,” said Bruce Toelle of PTS Extreme Transmissions, who has been dealing with the lawsuit since January 2012.

Back in 2008, a group called California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse reported on nearly $200 million over six years in costs related to inmate-initiated lawsuits, many of which the group deems frivolous. The group’s Tom Scott, who serves on a prison advisory committee, said every state correctional facility has a litigation coordinator to deal with the large volume of cases. A 1996 federal law puts some limits on inmate lawsuits in the federal courts, requiring prisoners to pay some of their own fees through monthly installments and providing an internal grievance-review process before a complaint gets to the court system. There aren't such limits in the state system.

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