Perhaps your attention was caught by the $2 million lawsuit that Mayor Marion Barry and his wife Effi filed last week against two people, involving injury claims from an automobile accident in February. Given the personalities -- the mayor, his wife, a man who reportedly lives on $323 a month in Social Security benefits and a woman who works as a cook -- the case is newsworthy. It also is an example of what is puzzling, outlandish and questionable about the whole system of autombile injury litigation.

In the suit filed in D.C. Superior Court, the Barrys contend that Mrs. Barry was seriously injured when the chauffeur-driven unmarked police car in which she was riding was struck from behind by a car driven by George Nelson, a 63-year-old disabled laborer. The Barrys argue that, as a direct result of the accident, Mrs. Barry sustained neck and back injuries and that she and the mayor have "suffered the loss of society, companionship and consortium." Their suit seeks $500,000 in compensatory damages and another $500,000 in punitive damages each from Mr. Nelson and a Rosa Samuels, who owned the car but who was not at the accident.

As the attorney for the Barrys noted, "essentially, the mayor and his wife have the same right" to sue a driver as anyone else in the District. And as it happens, someone else in this case is exercising that same right: the D.C. police officer, who was driving Mrs. Barry and who is reported to have suffered a hand injury in a scuffle with Mr. Nelson following the accident, is suing the same two people for a total of $1.5 million. The officer and his wife claim that he suffered injuries and damages "consisting of, but not limited to, cervical strain."

So altogether, the two defendants are staring at suits that total $3.7 million -- somewhat more, wesuspect, than the two might have in the way of cash in hand. Does anybody believe that these amounts are hard figures, actually to be paid if the plaintiffs win?

We have no idea how these two lawsuits will come out, but lawyers know that there is a pattern in cases such as these: arrive at a figure for "compensation" and then pick another figure -- preferably a fat one -- for punitive good measure. These are like first bids in a bazaar; the only difference is that there's a middleman called a lawyer who gets a hefty cut for keeping the game going. Even if the defendant has no money, the hope is that the automobile insurance policy will pay off.

When insurance pays, every policyholder pays. So who is going to pay if the insurance company has to pay the Barrys and the chauffeur/police officer and the officer's wife? Everybody in the city who owns an auto insurance policy. Next case, please.