Policy against legal, medical, and tax advice? March 1, 2004 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Requests for very specific legal, medical, and tax advice make me nervous. There should be some policy against these, or at least a very bold warning strongly discouraging and expressly disclaiming liability against responses in these threads.
posted by PrinceValium to Etiquette/Policy at 8:34 AM (52 comments total)

They make me nervous too, and I do need to write down a disclaimer somewhere for those answering questions, asking them, and me hosting it all.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:48 AM on March 1, 2004

Matt, I understand any reluctance you may have for allowing these questions. The biggest problem many of these people face are probably paying for the actual service. I know, I have had to wait almost eight years before I could afford the retainer for a divorce lawyer.

I think you, Matt, should also consult a lawyer about how to handle these questions. Hopefully, somewhere in your vacinity is a MeFite who is also a lawyer and who would be willing to guide you through handling this situation for free or at a reduced rate.

posted by mischief at 9:00 AM on March 1, 2004

Yeah, get a legal disclaimer, get a lawyer involved, whatever, but don't make them verboten to ask at all. 99% of the people realize they take the risk on themselves. As with all things, it's only the complete morons you have to worry about.
posted by Hildago at 9:13 AM on March 1, 2004

It only takes one complete moron to ruin it for everyone else. Unfortunate, that.
posted by konolia at 9:17 AM on March 1, 2004

if i can ask clavdivs to recommend the best moisturizer via cellphone, miguel for his opinion on legal arcana via email, and attend an "amway support corporation" tax avoidance seminar (on the advice of, say, midas mulligan) in a best western banquet room, i can damn well ask whatever i want on a computer bulletin board. what the hell is wrong with you people? oh, that's right. we're not in kansas anymore, and you aren't toto. i keep forgetting.
posted by quonsar at 9:18 AM on March 1, 2004

Today's complete moron is tomorrow's plaintiff.
posted by PrinceValium at 9:20 AM on March 1, 2004

I agree with Prince, and basically said as much in the thread. I don't mind giving some thoughts on general questions of law, but once specific facts are given, any answer I give constitutes actual legal advice. I'm not sure exactly how that works in the accounting and medical professions, but when I give advice as a lawyer about a specific case, I incur very specific professional, ethical, and legal obligations. No lawyer could go near Keyser's question without being licensed in Oregon and performing a conflicts check, at the bare minimum. I understand that not all lay people will realize this when they ask legal questions, but I can't just give legal advice willy-nilly. Those of you who aren't lawyers aren't going to get off lightly, either. If you give keyser legal advice, you could be practicing law without a license, which is subject to fine and/or criminal penalties in some states.

We shouldn't ban questions, but we should warn people that if they step over the line in asking certain questions, they will be unable to get their question answered. Further, the best answer to a lot of these kinds of questions is simply to seek the advice of a professional. I know the lure of free advice is seductive, but sometimes AskMe just isn't the appropriate or even an effective place for these questions.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:23 AM on March 1, 2004

I understand that not all lay people will realize this when they ask legal questions, but I can't just give legal advice willy-nilly.

People realize this. Generalities are generally, I think, what's being looked for, and I don't think it's a bad thing for people to find out something about their legal situation prior to speaking to a lawyer so they have some idea what's going on. I was recently threatened with a quarter-million dollar lawsuit and, due to having spent quite a bit of time in the past reading about libel law, I was able to make a judgement that the threat probably was a bluff (or would turn into one as soon as the party in question talked to his lawyer). As the publication in question has yet to turn a significant profit and as the initial investment was out-of-pocket the cost of merely asking a lawyer to opine on the merits could easily have put us out of business.

Please don't put a blanket ban on these questions.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:36 AM on March 1, 2004

Today's complete moron is tomorrow's plaintiff.

They oughta put that on law diplomas. And quonsar, you're really the negative terminal on everyone else's battery, huh? It's an obvious point that you feign blindness to. You also forgot to mention how coporations suck.
posted by yerfatma at 9:37 AM on March 1, 2004

well, on preview, what monju_bosatsu said, only i was more admantly calling the lawyers who would give actual legal advice in this context "dumbasses"

(and then immediately began to wonder if i had ever beenthat dumbass--but i think not. )

i don't think banning those kinds of questions is necessary or even productive. i get asked them all the time by friends, just like my doctor friends do. it's actually incumbent upon the professionals to refrain from answering.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:47 AM on March 1, 2004

I'm not necessarily advocating for a blanket ban, but let me put it this way.

I'm a first-year law student and lack a license to practice in any state. And that's the truth - anyone could easily verify this. But I'm also a pretty good legal writer and researcher, and I have a Westlaw password. It's probable that I could spend a couple of hours online and give Keyser a fairly satisfactory answer to his question.

Of course, I'd be breaking the law and every ethical rule there is. But since my answer probably wouldn't differ materially than a marginally competent Oregon defense lawyer, wouldn't my answer presuppose, in fact, that I am a marginally competent Oregon defense lawyer? Wouldn't Keyser, as a layperson, infer from my detailed and knowledgeable response that I have the legal and ethical capacity to respond to his question?

The easy solution is to require me to add my own disclaimer to my response that I am not a lawyer, and not licensed to practice in his jurisdiction. But while that may or may not make my response legal, it certainly doesn't make it any more ethical. And who can realistically police me from failing to supply my own disclaimer, or from misrepresenting myself as an actual lawyer?

Since I'm just a guy giving out bad advice for free, the liability certainly isn't wholly mine. The site administrator also has grounds for concern. Because Matt can't make sure that I'm not some crank making stuff up, his ability to effectively police the membership against incurring his own liability is a substantial issue and may plausibly require prohibiting well-meaning responses where necessary.
posted by PrinceValium at 9:56 AM on March 1, 2004

yerfatma forgot to read the fine print. can i sue?
posted by quonsar at 10:13 AM on March 1, 2004

How about making it policy that such questions need to be asked in the form: "Hey, I have this friend who was wondering about a hypothetical situation......."

That way it's not specific, we're just chatting.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:14 AM on March 1, 2004

and electrons flow from the negative pole to the positive pole. where's my lawyer?
posted by quonsar at 10:17 AM on March 1, 2004

and corporations suck.
posted by quonsar at 10:19 AM on March 1, 2004

Just as an FYI, this is how Google Answers [who charges for their services] deals with this issue in their FAQ

3. Do you answer medical, financial, or legal questions?
We will provide background information and links to other sources for questions of a professional nature, but Google Answers is not a substitute for professional advice and counsel. If you have a question of this nature, we strongly recommend you consult a professional.

But, of course, people never do. I saw legal questions on Google Answers all the time. In fact, sometimes it's tough to tell if your question crosses a line: "What is a benign tumor?" was not really asking for medical advice, but "My eye hurts" probably was. People also come into my library all the time asking for tax advice and while I have a fair idea how to answer their questions, I'm really seriously not allowed to tell them how to do their taxes. Oddly, if they came up to me on the street, I could, but not while I'm behind the reference desk. I think people have been good so far on AskMe about being clear that they are not lawyers, not doctors, or not plumbers. I think a disclaimer in the "Ask a Question" area as well as some vigilance to see if people are crossing the line answer-wise in a dangerous fashion [which I don't think I've seen really] seems like a good plan. But then again, I'm not a lawyer.
posted by jessamyn at 10:25 AM on March 1, 2004

one of you asshats wrote in AskMefi that mayonnaise, sugar, rubbing alcohol and gasoline are the perfect remedy for dry and dull hair, so I tried it and my hair caught fire

now I'm bald, my skull smells like burnt eggnog and I've sued mathowie
posted by matteo at 10:29 AM on March 1, 2004

The medical questions are very scary, since people really don't like to go to doctors. If they ask, what could possibly be wrong, and get a suitably benign answer, they won't go, when they probably really should.
posted by smackfu at 10:38 AM on March 1, 2004

I can't speak for doctors, but lawyers are ethically forbidden from given free advice.

Something that can be considered legal advice can create a legally enforceable attorney-client relationship.

So, advice from a lawyer should uniformly begin with "You should contact an attorney."

That being said, there are plenty of times where a lawyer can direct someone in the right direction.

The distinction I am drawing here is between general advice (e.g., one can check your local property code to find out what your state requires for wills) and specific advice (e.g., based on those facts, you should fire the employee and dispute his workers' comp claim). Another example could be that "all undeniable ascension to wealth is taxable income" (general) vs. "you shouldn't pay taxes on that boat you got from your boss" (specific).

I think most of the legal quesitons here, as long as they stay general, are perfectly fine and can be helpful to those needing direction. If someone wants specific advice, it shouldn't be here.
posted by Seth at 11:22 AM on March 1, 2004

I can't speak for doctors, but lawyers are ethically forbidden from given free advice.

Not exactly. I give a good bit of free advice, but only in the context of the attorney-client relationship, e.g., pro bono work. I gather that was the gist, of your comment, though, so it's really a minor quibble. As for the general versus the specific, you're spot on. As jessamyn indicated above, Google has the right approach. I don't mind pointing to online resources readily available to those who know the right key words, but I am not going to make any legal judgments based on limited facts given in a quasi-anonymous forum.

Although this is indeed a responsibility incumbent on the professional, I also agree with Prince Valium in that Matt has at least some cause for concern. Indeed, although I think a Google-style disclaimer would be appropriate, I'm not sure it's sufficient assuage that concern in this case. I'm of the opinion that it's relatively easy to recognize those questions which would require professional judgment about specific circumstances to answer, such as Keyser's, and delete them.

And what XQUZYPHYR said.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:40 AM on March 1, 2004

I totally agree that "my eye hurts" and specific qualms are, and should be unanswerable here for above stated implications. But banning all legal, all medical and all financial questions are wrong.

Case and point, I always wondered if it was legal to let a police officer search your car if you're not drunk, pot's not pouring out of your windows or you have a gun on the front seat. I actually casually asked a lawyer who said "if they want to search they'll search and make something up". While disheartening Ask Mefi provided a quench for my knowledge. Paticularly monju's detailed response.

So yeah I had another paragraph written but decided that I have no idea what I'm talking about when compared to actual lawyer responses. I only have to say that such questions, when posed generally and applicable are actually enjoyable to nerds like me.
posted by geoff. at 12:03 PM on March 1, 2004

I haven't studied PR since I got out of law school. I have attended some CLE classes, but I'm not up to date on the ethics of legal advice on the internet.

Monju, you re-iterated my point: lawyers shouldn't give advice because of atty/client relationship rules.

But that is a duty on lawyers. A bunch of non-lawyers can give people legal advice whenever they want.

The only problem with it that I can see is if people acted on that advice and something occurred. I can't imagine an issue where liability might attach because of advice on the internet from a non-lawyer, but I suppose it is possible.

Without giving Matt advice (... the irony...), I'd suspect that if I had a website that gave advice, I'd put a message on the post page saying something like:
Note: Any advice you solicit from this website is not intended to be dispositive on the issue. Users should not ask question with the intention of relying on the responses.

I might include something like that on my own site......
posted by Seth at 12:06 PM on March 1, 2004

"Note: Any advice you solicit from this website is not intended to be dispositive on the issue. Users should not ask question with the intention of relying on the responses."

Statements like this are the best arguement for placing all lawyers on a barge and setting it ablaze.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:10 PM on March 1, 2004

Nobody's suggesting banning all legal, medical, or financial questions, at least not as far as I can tell. You will also notice that in my response to geoff.'s question linked above my response could not be construed as legal advice. I pointed out resources that were interesting and useful. Keyser, on the other hand, was asking specifically for legal advice, i.e., he wanted to know what his friend should do next given his current circumstances. I can't answer that question. I could answer geoff.'s without difficulty or concern.

But that is a duty on lawyers. A bunch of non-lawyers can give people legal advice whenever they want.

No. As I noted above, that could potentially be construed as practicing law without a license, especially, if as PrinceValium wrote, the reader might think the non-lawyer answering the question was in fact a lawyer.

Further, as y6y6y6 notes, the disclaimer you suggest is excessively legalistic, and further, doesn't actually disclaim or waive any liability.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 12:13 PM on March 1, 2004

No, I was noting that all lawyers should be burned alive and then eaten by sharks.

Does anyone here have any cases where people have actually been sued because someone took advice they found on a general purpose message board? Anyone?

I think this is just another big load of bullshit where lawyers are trying to make us understand how vital and mysterious and dangerous they are. Like it's fucking complicated or something. Everyone here gets it. But we still need a bunch of lawyers to come in and turn it into some big fucking production. It's a message board. And the possibility of anyone getting sued is zero. But they can't let us think that or they'd be out of jobs.

"Ignore the little man behind the curtain!!!!"
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:39 PM on March 1, 2004

"Warning: any advice given is not legal, medical, or financial advice and does not create any ethical, legal, or fiduciary relationship. The site owner specifically is not responsible for any advice given nor your stupidity for following it. The advice givers are just as likely to be joking as serious. If you follow any of this advice without consulting your own doctor, lawyer, or accountant, you are dumb, dumb, dumb. Remember, Happy Fun Ball is still legal in 16 states!"
posted by norm at 12:46 PM on March 1, 2004

"Warning: any advice given is not to be taken or given any consideration. Despite the fact that the entire purpose of this site is answering questions, anyone asking a question is an idiot, and anyone answering one is a moron. But anyone who actually takes advice they find here is obviously retarded. If you use any of the advise you see here someone will sue you and you'll end up living in a box down by the river."
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2004

{finds alternative mode to overthrow the world then ask.meta}
posted by clavdivs at 12:59 PM on March 1, 2004

If we strictly forbid the asking of legal, medical, or financial questions, based on the potential for those who would answer to incur some form of legal ramification, we must similarly institute a ban on all food-related, computer-related, pet-related, or travel-related inquiries as well.

Example 1: JuanGigante requests advice on resolving a hardware issue with his computer. While following the point-by-point instructions provided by sixsaltedsardines, Juan inadvertently wipes his hard drive and, with it, his recently-completed doctoral dissertation on the impact of distilled spirits upon modern haberdashery. Incensed, JuanGigante files suit against sss for destroying his life's work.

Example 2: Algebrahe seeks out information on treating his cat's moderate Feline Tourette's Syndrome, and avgvstvs provides his time-tested herbal remedy for the condition. Unfortunately, alegebrahe doesn't learn his cat is allergic to sage oil until it's too late and, infuriated, he contacts a lawyer about prosecuting the man who killed his beloved Mr. Mittens.

In other words, where does personal liability end in any field of advice-giving? Wouldn't we necessarily have to disclaim (or even forbid) all subject matter to be absolutely certain that questions on Ask MetaFilter never lead to lawsuits?
posted by Danelope at 1:27 PM on March 1, 2004

Just as a data point, I think the loud chorus of Go To A Doctor and Go Get A Lawyer which comes as a result of these types of questions is actually the best answer there is ... sometimes people just need to hear (read) the words, or they need some kind of external prompt in order to do what is (to you and I) the obvious thing....
posted by anastasiav at 1:33 PM on March 1, 2004

I also thought that WebMD's Terma and Conditions was interesting, as they claim THE SITE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE.
posted by jmd82 at 1:51 PM on March 1, 2004

Danelope--sure, but incurring professional liability on the part of a lawyer can mean the loss of a license. which is why i said that the onus is on the lawyers to keep their mouths shut--not on the questioners to not ask.

there's really three issues: protecting the questioner & protecting the answerer & protecting the forum. i think the first two should protect themselves.

y6--which is really the issue, not a "oo, we don't want anyone who isn't a lawyer to have the answer without paying for it"

like m-b, i give lots of "free" legal advice, but only in the context of the professional relationship--then the client is protected when i screw up and i'm protected when the client doesn't like what i have to tell him.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:56 PM on March 1, 2004

so we should just ban lawyers?

How does Dear Abby do it? Or the Ethicist from the NYT?
posted by amberglow at 2:02 PM on March 1, 2004

While I agree with y63 in principle, but we live in the real world and the fact is that, for every lawyer handing out free advice on the Internet, there is another preying on those who blindly followed that advice and got burned. In the current litigious environment, it pays to be too careful rather than too generous. However, there must be some form of disclaimer that can be generated to at least cover mathowie's potential liability and something that requires those asking questions to accept that the advice given may not be suitable for their situation and they should make their own legal, medical, etc enquries through the proper channels.
posted by dg at 2:06 PM on March 1, 2004

"However, there must be some form of disclaimer that can be generated to at least cover mathowie's potential liability"

Just out of curiosity, does a disclaimer at all mitigate the chance of getting sued? It seems to me most disclaimers and EULAs increase my responsibility, but don't decrease the responsibility of the person placing it.

So....... Zero examples of anyone anywhere ever suing anyone else for anything after they took advice they found on a general purpose Internet message board?
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:31 PM on March 1, 2004

I agree with y6y6y6 that most of this is lawyers looking to both cover their asses and keep their supersized fees intact. Which is totally opposite to the Internet trend of information trending to the marginal cost of production.
posted by billsaysthis at 2:44 PM on March 1, 2004

So....... Zero examples of anyone anywhere ever suing anyone else for anything after they took advice they found on a general purpose Internet message board?

It's much harder to research actions that are merely brought by a party and not adjudicated. This happens to be the vast majority of lawsuits.

It has always spooked me that Matt does exert a certain amount of control over the site (banning people, deleting threads, etc) and that could, in some circumstances, open him up to certain forms of liability. Before AskMe arrived I was usually thinking in terms of contributory copyright infringement since that's my bag. I mentioned it to him a few times and that was that.

I'm pretty much in line with monju on this. Oh, and quonsar, I'll be expecting a retainer the day I (god willing) get sworn in next fall.
posted by anathema at 3:17 PM on March 1, 2004

does a disclaimer at all mitigate the chance of getting sued?
From my experience, which is limited to participants in perceived dangerous sporting activities, a properly worded disclaimer may not stop someone from sueing you, but it does show that the potential claimant had prior knowledge of the risks involved in the activity and accepted the potential result of the activity - the extent of the potential risks need to be clearly outlined in the disclaimer. The disclaimer needs to be backed up with a risk management system that minimises the risk to the participant as much as possible and, in the case of litigation, it may be necessary to prove that the risk management procedures were followed. As long as the disclaimer was correctly completed (explained to the person enough so they understand it, not just "sign here, don't worry about the legal mumbo-jumbo) and procedures are in place to document the risk management side of things, disclaimers can squash most cases. This is in Australia, so the situation may will vary in other places.

For example, a disclaimer that pops up when someone posts a question on AskMe could explain what is needed in legal terms and the questioner be required to waive any rights to depend on whatever answers are given. Much like a software EULA that requires to you accept the conditions prior to installation.
posted by dg at 4:20 PM on March 1, 2004

Change the name to "Ask MeFites" and display a disclaimer under the logo declaring this site as no more than an intermediary in no way endorsing/warrantying/validating the quality of the answers elicited.
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:27 PM on March 1, 2004

You might also make all participants re-register subject to an agreement so as to keep legalese off the front page.

But the fact is, if someone gave advice that led to genuine calamity, mathowie will be getting the subpoena seeking the name/ip of the advice-giver once the smoke clears and the lawyers swoop in.
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:30 PM on March 1, 2004

I just want to know when we get a thread to plan out the perfect murder. I've been kicking around some ideas that put the kill-someone-with-an-icicle bit to shame.
posted by The God Complex at 6:32 PM on March 1, 2004

In addition to the Google Answers FAQ that jessamyn mentioned above, they also have this language in their TOS:
"Not Professional Advice. Information provided via the Services is not intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric, psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice. If you submit a question or comment on such a topic, we will assume you are interested in soliciting and receiving or giving general information rather than professional advice. You should bear in mind that the applicability of such general information might vary substantially in different states and according to the individual factual circumstances surrounding a particular question or comment. Accordingly, if you desire or require professional advice, please consult a qualified provider who is licensed in your state or country."
posted by gluechunk at 6:50 PM on March 1, 2004

So, advice from a lawyer should uniformly begin with "You should contact an attorney."


Today's complete moron is tomorrow's plaintiff.

Summary judgment in Leonard v. Pepsi

"Plaintiff's insistence that the commercial appears to be a serious offer requires the Court to explain why the commercial is funny."
posted by eddydamascene at 7:27 PM on March 1, 2004


Or, better yet, write it out and do away with the lame acronyms.
posted by The God Complex at 7:37 PM on March 1, 2004

Fine. Advice from a lawyer should uniformly begin with "I am not a lawyer".
posted by eddydamascene at 7:44 PM on March 1, 2004

What if you're a lawyer but not a particularly good one? ;)
posted by The God Complex at 7:49 PM on March 1, 2004

Hey gang, as one of those who asked a medical question (specifically stating I was only looking for some ideas, not diagnoses) the answers I received steered me in the right direction... to a doctor, with a better idea of what was *possibly* going on. I'm absolutely fine with putting in a clause in the TOS, but it would take a damn fool idiot to try to sue Matt or whoever for giving bad advice. Even some of the computer questions could create a liability issue, say if someone followed a recommendation and lost all their data.

In the case of damn fool litigious idiots, bring on a checkbox before posting the question stating that the poster would not indemnify MeFi or whoever for any potential damages. Don't check the box, don't post. C'est ca.

I was grateful for the chorus of GO SEE A DOCTOR and grateful for the ideas suggested as to what was going on. It helped a lot, and I'd hope that an outside chance of retribution wouldn't imperil the ability to ask reasonable and mature questions about health, law or taxation issues in the future. But I'll second the motion of caveat lector. (Latin is just so juicy when talking about law).
posted by moonbird at 8:32 PM on March 1, 2004

MetaFilter, do I look fat in this?
posted by wendell at 8:54 PM on March 1, 2004

... it would take a damn fool idiot to try to sue Matt or whoever for giving bad advice.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of damn fool idiots out there.

wendell, that is one question that nobody in their right mind is going to answer. Out of conditioning, if nothing else.
posted by dg at 9:45 PM on March 1, 2004

So much for free speech.

As far as I'm concerned, nothing should meet the definition of "legal advice" or "medical advice" unless there is an acknowledged and accepted contract between two individuals to give and receive same. But alas, I do not run the world.
posted by rushmc at 10:20 PM on March 1, 2004

but lawyers are ethically forbidden from given free advice

- But for those pesky ethics, lawyers would happily forgo their exorbitant fees.
posted by johnnyboy at 2:53 AM on March 2, 2004

What if you're a lawyer but not a particularly good one?

posted by jennyb at 7:28 AM on March 2, 2004

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