FindLaw's List of the Top 10 Legal Issues on Consumers' Minds

2008 was extraordinary in terms of the scope of issues facing Americans. An historic election, mortgage meltdown and a world-wide financial crisis helped drive more information hungry visitors than ever to the Web. Here are the ten most popular legal issues that visitors to FindLaw – the most visited consumer legal site – wanted to know more about this year.

Home Foreclosures & Renter's Rights Government and Politics – Obama Fever
Voters' Rights Digital Distractions
Do Pets Have Rights? Dog Law Highly Regulated Products - Air Guns,
Mini Motorcycles & Tinted Windows
Grandparents' Rights Don't Have A Will? You Probably Need One
Who Gets the Ring When the Engagement is Over? Teen Rights - Curfew Law

 

Home Foreclosures & Renter's Rights

Why It Matters
The legal issues beneath the mortgage meltdown are myriad: from predatory lending to the rating and regulation of mortgage-backed securities. It will take years to understand and remedy the regulatory issues that allowed a bonanza in sub-prime mortgages in the U.S. to sink the world economy. However, the legal issues faced by homeowners and renters are immediate.

Faced with increased foreclosures, many states have modified their foreclosure laws to allow slightly longer grace periods and/or increased notification requirements. Through IndyMac Federal Bank, the FDIC has implemented a streamlined mortgage modification program, while many anxious homeowners watch to see if private lenders will take a similar approach.

For renters, the law is less confusing but often less helpful. In most states, if the homeowner's mortgage predates a renter's lease, foreclosure on the home wipes out the lease. This means that often without even knowing that their landlord has been foreclosed upon, renters lose their lease and become month to month tenants who can and often are forced out after a typical notification period of 30 days.


Why It's Big

The events that triggered the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and the subsequent global financial crisis, were growing news topics all year. As more consumers faced the real possibility of foreclosure and experts predicted as many as 5 million more homeowners at risk, there was a spike in searches for legal options related to mortgage and debt relief including bankruptcy.

In the Fall of 2008, FindLaw experienced a sharp decrease in searches about foreclosures and a subsequent spike in searches related to the legal rights of renters. As credit became scarce and foreclosures increased the demand and the average price for rental properties began to rise.

While landlord and tenant issues have long been a popular topic on FindLaw, a new type of rental issue has emerged as home foreclosures rise: landlords with rental properties in foreclosure.

According to housingpolicy.org, as many as 38% of foreclosed homes are rental properties. When these landlord-owners default on the mortgage of their rental property, renters can be faced with the loss of their rent or deposits and even lose their homes unexpectedly during foreclosure proceedings.

Government and Politics – Obama Fever

Why It Matters
With very different visions of government placed before the voter in this election, along with dire economic predictions, interest peaked in how government works, what it does, and how an Obama administration might change that.

Before the explosion of the financial crisis, legal questions relating to our wars, such as what each candidate would do with the "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay, took center stage. This year the Supreme Court held these prisoners to have a right to petition for habeas corpus relief. Since then, some have successfully done so.

After finances took over the front page, Americans looked for information as to how each candidate might reshape government to revitalize our economy and keep people in their homes and jobs.

With the looming bankruptcy of states and municipalities who by law cannot run a budget deficit, and large federal regulatory problems exposed, the question of what role an Obama government might play in our lives pushed itself to the top.


Why It's Big

In a political year, it is no surprise that the media and voters put the actions of lawmakers under a microscope. The meltdown of global financial institutions, increasing frequency of state and local governments going bankrupt, and two long wars in the Middle East have made politics the most searched for and researched topic on FindLaw.

While presidential policy and judicial rulings are de rigueur for a legal resource like FindLaw, by far most visitors looked for information pertaining to the lawmakers with near celebrity status running for political office this year. Those with law degrees, including Hilary Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani and Joe Biden held particular interest.

Ultimately however, all things Obama garnered the tens of thousands of clicks, not to mention the most coverage and legal commentary from FindLaw's feature writers.

Voters' Rights

Why It Matters
The Democratic primary put seemingly arcane questions of electoral procedures on the front page. The difference between caucuses and primaries and the difference between pledged versus unpledged delegates became vitally important to voters across the country.

In the general election, legal challenges to voter registration lists and to the technology through which we cast our votes dominated.

Partisans in numerous states sued to have voter roles purged of voters whose information did not match that contained in motor vehicle records. Invigorated voter registration initiatives including ACORN were challenged as fraudulently registering non-existent voters. Though we saw these issues flare up in 2008, we did not see them resolved in any permanent way.


Why It's Big

Coming in close behind the political candidates was the voting process. With the 2008 election garnering the highest turnout since 1965, there was a sense of empowerment by American voters of every race, religion and class and a feeling that their vote could count.

As the election grew near, interest in the Electoral College, time-off-to-vote laws, and the different branches of the federal government peaked!

Americans watched closely on the eve of the election in the event that the Courts would ultimately be deciding this election, just as they had done in 2000 and 2004.

Digital Distractions

Why It Matters
Currently, at least five states, the District of Columbia, and jurisdictions within seven other states have enacted bans on driving while talking on a handheld mobile device. The District of Columbia and seven states including California have enacted bans on text messaging while driving.

Even more states punish such behaviors under general laws against driving while distracted. In addition to resulting in more tickets, driving with digital distractions could become per se evidence of negligence. This means that drivers who text or talk without a hands-free device could face a presumption of liability for accidents in which they are involved.


Why It's Big

With the ubiquity of cell phones, iPods and PDAs, the temptation to use them while doing other tasks can be deadly. The AMA published a warning that texting causes a 400% increase in time spent with people's eyes off the road.

There were plenty of regional news headlines related to drivers and machine operators being injured or killed in 2008. By far the biggest headline was the Los Angeles MetroLink Commuter train accident in October that killed 24 people, including the driver who was text messaging at the time of the accident. The tragedy motivated the California senate to ban texting or other digital distractions for train operators.

In August, FindLaw published its most popular news release of 2008: Half of Young Drivers Admit to Texting While Driving. There is no sign that this epidemic of multi-tasking is going away and we foresee interest in this issue to continue.

Do Pets Have Rights? Dog Law

Why It Matters
The growing role of pets in people's lives brought pets into the courtroom and into state legislatures in areas ranging from product liability and guarantee to quasi-human treatment of animal companions.

Product liability issues affecting pets took center stage in October when a federal court approved a $24 million settlement to compensate consumers whose pets had died or been sickened by melamine tainted pet food in 2007.

Consumers have also become increasingly aware of their need for protected when buying pets. Currently, at least twelve states have enacted puppy lemon laws to protect pet buyers.

No longer treated simply as property, pets increasing play legal roles such as estate beneficiaries, subjects of lawsuits, subjects of custody battles, and victims of abuse. Pets as heirs again made news in June when a New York court reduced the inheritance that hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley left to her Maltese, Trouble, from $12 million down to $2 million. The worlds of professional sports and animal rights law collided in 2008 with the highly publicized case of then Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, currently serving time after conviction on criminal dog fighting charges.


Why It's Big

Pet owners were confronted with a diverse range of legal issues pertaining to their furry and feathered companions this year. Most were related to people and dogs sharing common spaces in urban settings. With high demand for public spaces for a wide variety of recreational needs, more cities enacted strict regulations pertaining to the use of spaces like beaches and parks for dogs. Attorneys that specialize in dog bites continue to be popular directory search in key metros areas.

Long before melamine found its way into baby formula in China, US dogs and cats were sickened and died due to the same chemical in their food in 2007 with continued review in the courts through 2008.

Those looking to buy pets found themselves wondering if they had the same protections consumers do when buying a car or television. If Fido isn't what was promised, can I return him for a full refund?

But dogs and cats weren't the only animals making headlines. Zoo safety became top news after the Christmas 2007 mauling of three boys by a full sized tiger in San Francisco.

Highly Regulated Products – Air Guns,
Mini Motorcycles & Tinted Windows

Why It Matters
Goods such as airsoft guns and pocket or mini bikes reside in legal grey areas because they sit between toys and dangerous regulated goods.

Though not classified as firearms under federal or state laws, airsoft guns are treated differently in different cities. Some municipalities define firearms to include guns powered by spring or air-compression. Some forbid removal of the 6mm orange tip that federal law requires at the end of the barrel at the time of sale. Many cities allow purchase of airsoft guns but forbid firing them within city limits. Products like airsoft rifles and pocket bikes often leave consumers free to purchase them, but then with widely different local rules about using them.

Similarly, pocket bikes – also called rocket and mini bikes can go upward of 40 mph but are not treated like their larger cousins. Pocket bikes are almost universally illegal for use on public roadways due to numerous requirements for registered vehicles, such as signal lights, mirrors, horns, mufflers, and insurance to name a few. Pocket bikes also run afoul of some states emissions laws. Divergent state laws also drive consumers' questions regarding tinted windows. All states regulate the degree to which you can tint your windows; however the level of tint allowed ranges from 25% to 70% depending on the state, leaving consumers wondering just how dark they can go.


Why It's Big

A handful of controversial products make our list this due to their search popularity and the number of questions asked on FindLaw. Airsoft guns, pocket bikes, and tinted windows on automobiles fall into complex legal territory due to safety concerns.

While each of these products is not per se illegal, they often skirt legal grey area and are with increasing frequency regulated by states or counties to ensure consumer and public safety.

Grandparents' Rights

Why It Matters
In 2000, the US Supreme Court struck down a Washington state law allowing anyone to petition for visitation rights if it was in the best interest of the child. Since then, the status of grandparent visitation rights has varied widely from state to state.

Now, states run the spectrum in terms of allowing grandparents the right to seek child visitation. More permissive states such as New York and Hawaii allow grandparents to petition the court for visitation if it is in the best interest of the child, while states such as Florida and Pennsylvania require grandparents to have previously acted in a parental relationship with the child before asking the court for visitation. Again, widely different state laws about a commonly faced question send Americans in search of what legal rule applies to their situation.


Why It's Big

Although the issue of grandparent rights coincided closely with divorce rates for decades, 2008 has found an 8% increase in visitors searching for information related to their rights as grandparents.

As Baby Boomers increasingly become grandparents, family structures evolve, and more state courts weigh in on custody and visitation rights for different types of family units we predict this issue to become more common.

Don't Have A Will? You Probably Need One

Why It Matters
Though most states provide inheritance protection for children born after the will was created, updating a will to keep up with family changes prevents needless confusion. More important still is to have a will in the first place.

When someone dies without a valid will, their estate passes into intestate succession. This means that the state determines how the person's assets will be divided. Certain assets, such as insurance policies which name a beneficiary, clearly indicate to whom they will go. For the rest, each state has rules setting out who will get what. These rules differ by state but generally involve all or most of the estate going to any surviving spouse, with the rest divided amongst relatives in order of how closely they are related. The risk of dying without a valid will is that the rules of intestate succession do not offer exceptions, even if specific wishes of the deceased are known.


Why It's Big

Most people envision the creation of a Last Will and Testament as something reserved for the wealthy; and a June 2008 a FindLaw survey found that more than 60% of adults don't have one! As the tragic case of actor Heath Ledger showed, not only do most people need a will, but they should also update it as family circumstances change. The father of a 2 year old at the time of his death, Ledger's will was 3 years out of date, leaving all of his possessions to his parents and siblings and tying up the issue in court for many months.

FindLaw experienced a 13% increase in searches for instructions on creating a basic will as Americans become more aware of the importance of a will and their options to quickly get or create a legal document.

Who Gets the Ring When the Engagement is Over?

Why It Matters
Division of property in a divorce can already get messy. Splitting up the goods for a couple that was not married can be even more complicated. In states such as Texas that recognize common law marriage, the property may be divided just as it would in a divorce. The question of whether a couple was common law married becomes more complicated in states like Pennsylvania which have grandfathered in older common law marriages, but do not recognize new ones, or Utah, where court or administrative validation is required to recognize a common law marriage. Different official classifications for same sex couples in many states allow the property of registered couples who split to be divided as in a divorce. The type of split which offers the least guidance for property division is that of the unmarried, unregistered cohabitating couple. The property rights issues of such unmarried couples highlight the usefulness of a cohabitation agreement to avoid a free-for-all as to who owns what when they part ways.


Why It's Big

The recent lawsuit involving a formerly engaged West Palm Beach couple and a $67,000 ring is just one of many brought to court each year that garner news and fuel the debate over who gets to keep the ring. And on FindLaw, the subject became one of most popular feature articles for the year.

Similarly, other ownership issues linger when a relationship goes south, especially if the couple has been together for a long time, or cohabitated. For example, who has legal right to the dog? Or how do you split up personal property or real estate.

Teen Rights – Curfew Laws

Why It Matters
Currently, almost all large cities have curfew laws which impose limits on minors' ability to be out at night. Most aim to keep teens off the streets after a certain hour (such as 10 p.m.), but have exceptions for things such as going to or from official school functions, going to or from work, running errands for parents, and medical emergencies.

The desire for more freedom also drives teens curious about emancipation. Courts in states offering teen emancipation statutes generally consider the best interest of the minor and the minor's ability to support her/himself in making a decision to emancipate.

Minors face particular search and seizure concerns because the 4th and 5th Amendment standards protecting people from unreasonable searches are different in the school setting. Firstly, these constitutional protections do not apply in the private school setting. In public schools, courts have held that only "reasonable suspicion," rather than "probable cause," is required for searches of personal items such as bags or lockers. Canine searches have been largely upheld without any reasonable suspicion, and many states have upheld random drug testing by schools for anyone participating in extracurricular activities such as sports.


Why It's Big

Savvy teens supported this year's rise in searches for teen curfew laws and other juvenile justice issues in major US metropolitan areas.

Similar to uniquely urban issues like dog rights and noise ordinances, many top metro areas are turning to the law to help reduce crime and maintain peace and safety within their city limits.

Other hot teen rights issues include emancipation of minors and search and seizure. Many of these searches were driven by normal teen curiosity and periodic instances of kids bringing weapons or drugs to school.


How the List Was Formulated

This year's top ten was formulated by FindLaw's interactive marketing team and based on analysis of visitor popularity on FindLaw.com. The most popular issues were selected based on a number of criteria including most searched legal topics, most popular lawyer searches, and top legal questions. FindLaw's in-house legal experts provided each legal topic with a professional legal analysis behind the consumer trend.


Nerissa LeMaster-Sardi is FindLaw's Interactive Marketing Manager. Caleb Groos is a content producer for FindLaw and a licensed California attorney.