Fascinating story from the LATimes (via Yahoo! News) about how the mainstream media distorts the public perception of the legal system by their headline coverage of plaintiff verdicts and turning a blind-eye to damages reversals, or defense wins:
Feeding the perception of a crisis in the legal system, they say, is the way the news media cover the courts.
After the big headlines, critics say, the media often drop the ball, losing interest in what happens later. Published studies of news content and a Times examination of major recent cases show that when the immense verdicts were overturned or dramatically reduced, the news frequently was banished to the inside pages or simply not reported.
Legal experts and media observers say such coverage gives a distorted picture of the civil justice system while lending credence to fears of irrational jury awards. News coverage has reinforced the message "that the system's out of control, and that juries are using the tort system to redistribute wealth in some unjust and unprincipled way," said Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at UC Berkeley.
The popular view that there are more lawsuits and bigger damage awards than ever before is not supported by available evidence.
A 35-state survey by the National Center for State Courts found that the number of tort filings declined 4% from 1993 through 2002 despite population growth. And in the nation's 75 largest counties, the median award to victorious plaintiffs was $37,000 in 2001 — much less than the inflation-adjusted median of $63,000 in 1992, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.
This type of skewed coverage often leads to hysterical tyraids against "plaintiff's lawyers," and calls for "tort reform" to stop the glut of "baseless lawsuits" by folks looking for an easy buck.
Certainly, plaintiffs prevail less often in the real world than they appear to in the news media. Consider:
• A 1999 survey by Rand Corp.'s Institute for Civil Justice found auto liability cases were 12 times more likely to draw news coverage when plaintiffs won than when defendants did, a difference the study called "very stark." In its review of 351 trials conducted during the 1980s and '90s, the institute found that 38 of 92 plaintiff verdicts, or 41%, were featured in news reports, versus 9 of 259 verdicts for the defense — or about 3%. . . .
[• ]Reflecting the pattern was news coverage of a June 2004 verdict in which a San Diego jury ordered Ford to pay $367 million to Benetta Buell-Wilson, who was paralyzed when her Explorer SUV rolled over and its roof collapsed. Ford previously had won a dozen similar Explorer cases but the media hardly batted an eye. Ford's victories received a smattering of coverage, mainly in business and legal publications, whereas the Buell-Wilson verdict was widely reported by the mainstream news media.
• A 1995 article in the Hofstra Law Review showed that personal injury verdicts reported in the New York Times and Newsday were dramatically higher than typical awards in the New York courts. According to the survey, awards covered by the New York-based papers over a five-year period were 13 times and 9 times higher than average, respectively.
• A 1996 survey of leading magazines such as Time, Newsweek and Fortune showed that plaintiff verdicts were "considerably overrepresented" in reports on civil litigation. The examination of 249 articles by Daniel S. Bailis and UC Berkeley's MacCoun found that plaintiffs were victorious in 85% of cases cited in the articles, compared with a real-world average of no more than 50%. Damage awards cited in the articles were also several times above the norm, leaving "little doubt that the selective reporting practices … provide a tremendously distorted picture of the jury award distribution," the study said.
And there was also this:
A review of some recent high-profile cases by The Times showed newspapers that extensively covered huge damage verdicts seemed to lose interest when the awards were slashed or overturned. The review involved a computer database survey of articles about the cases and follow-up queries to newspaper librarians.
[• ]One such story was the $5-billion punitive damage award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. At the time of the verdict in September 1994, front-page reports appeared in such major dailies as The Times, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and St. Petersburg Times.
When a federal appeals court overturned the award in November 2001, three of the 10 papers reported it on the front page.
[• ]When a Los Angeles jury in July 1999 ordered General Motors to pay a then-record $4.9 billion in compensatory and punitive damages to six people burned when the gas tank of their Chevrolet Malibu exploded after a rear-end collision, the story made the front page of leading U.S. papers — including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, Ft. Worth Star Telegram, San Jose Mercury News and The Times.
Coverage was sparser a few weeks later when the trial judge trimmed the punitive damages to a still-huge $1.2 billion. Two of the 10 papers ran the story on the front page.
Then in July 2003, while the case was on appeal, it was settled for an undisclosed sum. Brief items appeared in four of the papers, while no mention could be found in the other six.
[• ]When a Florida jury socked top cigarette makers with a $144.8-billion punitive damage award, it was the lead story for many print and broadcast outlets. Front-page reports on the July 2000, verdict appeared in The Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle and Indianapolis Star, among others.
When a Florida appeals court overturned the award in May 2003, two of the 10 papers ran front-page reports.
I don't mean to suggest that there are no fraudulent lawsuits out there. But there is far from any crisis. Any such crisis is simply the result of politicians who stir up a voting block based on the reporting of a lazy MSM. America is blessed with an effective, and yes, I'm willing to say it efficient legal system.
(Hat tip to South Texas Law Professor blog.)