Ronald Shrewsberry never had a brush with the law until two years ago when a Northern Virginia hotel accused him of not paying a $57 bar bill.
The charge against Shrewsberry -- defrauding an innkeeper -- later was dismissed in Fairfax General District Court after hotel officials failed to show up for his trial. The hotel manager, who said at a subsequent trial that he had attempted to get the fraud charge dropped, said he didn't show up because he had inadvertantly circled the wrong court date on his calendar.
"I couldn't believe it," said Shrewsberry, 43, formerly a salesman in Virginia who now works in California. "I just didn't think something like this could happen in the United States."
Virginia, however, along with a number of other states, has a remedy for people such as Shrewsbury who believe they have been falsely accused of crimes. It's called the malicious prosecution suit, a civil action under which a person wrongly arrested or sued can countersue for damages.
Although few lawyers are willing to talk openly about the filing of such cases -- still rare in Virginia -- malicious prosecution suits have come into more frequent use, pushing up lawyers' malpractice insurance rates and disrupting the state's conservative legal community in the process.
Shrewsberry took advantage of this little-known remedy and brought a malicious prosecution suit in Fairfax Circuit Court against the Falls Church Ramada Inn, located at the intersection of Route 7 and the Beltway. A seven-man jury awarded Shrewsberry $5,000 last week after his lawyer argued that it was unfair that the hotel could leave his client with an arrest record.
"There has been an increase in the filing of malpractice claims," said Daniel Borinsky, chairman of the Virginia State Bar's insurance committee. "Some of those claims are for abuse of process or malicious prosecution. Basically, up until the mid-1970s, those cases weren't significant."
Borinsky says malicious prosecution cases remain rare in the state, but the suits have helped push up overall malpractice claims against Virginia lawyers from an infinitesimal amount six years ago to a number "somewhere in the teens" in 1980. Of all malpractice claims brought against Virginia lawyers by their clients last year, he said, 5 percent of them were for malicious prosecution charges.
In addition, Borinsky said, "insurance premiums have risen from about $100 (per year) in the mid-1970s to three to five times that amount now."
"Percentage-wise it's not yet a major cause of action, but it's certainly increasing," said Jeffrey Smith, an Atlanta lawyer who is considered an expert in the field and who has been invited by the D.C. Bar Association to give a seminar on the subject this month to local lawyers. "I think it's fair to say there is an increasing concern with it."
"People in general are more litigious," Smith said. "Another component is that people are more willing to sue lawyers, and a third component is that lawyers are more willing to take on these cases."
The move to file malicious prosecution suits has been led by doctors, many of whom have become outraged at the time and expense they have had to expend defending themselves against medical malpractice claims.
Doctors in Northern Virginia, however, have not yet been very successful with their malicious prosecution claims.
Vedii Ayyildiz, a Virginia doctor, brought a malicious prosecution suit against one of his patients and the patient's lawyer last year over an unsuccessful medical malpractice lawsuit that the patient had filed against him.
The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, but the court ruled against Ayyildiz, holding that he had to be able to prove he had suffered "special injury" before his claim could be considered.
One lawyer who has been on the receiving end of a malicious prosecution suit thinks the day will soon come when the tide turns in favor of such litigants.
"In the back of every disgruntled defendant's mind is the possiblity of suing the lawyer back," said Walter J. Smith, who was named in an unsuccessful malicious prosecution suit brought by a District physician.
"Doctors are upset because of the so-called explosion of medical malpractice claims," he said. "They think the best way to cure the problem is to get after the lawyers. It's had a partial effect because these young lawyers are now reluctant to take a shotgun approach to litigation anymore. But the day will probably come when these suits are successful. I think all the courts are waiting for is the right case with the right set of facts."