Myron Levin and the Los Angeles Times do it again

by Ted Frank on August 16, 2005

In part II of their series on behalf of the trial lawyers’ bar, the LA Times repeats a mistake from part I and then compounds the error by citing misleading statistics.

As you recall in Part I, the LA Times noted that there exist urban legends about litigation, and claimed that these urban legends have distorted the debate in favor of tort reform. (And, as Walter points out, gives unmerited credence to a nefarious allegation.) The first part is trivially true, but the only evidence cited in support of the conclusion is a second-hand tale of a credulous radio talk show listener who called in to repeat the Winnebago story. And why this radio talk show caller is proof of a distorted debate towards tort reform, while, say, big-budget movies like “Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider,” and “A Civil Action” that glamorize plaintiffs who had bad cases or the numerous newsmagazine segments that consist of nicely-produced twenty-minute videos for a plaintiff’s opening statement don’t distort the debate remains unclear, but the Times assumes that people support tort reform because of the urban legends rather than because of the true tales and statistics and despite Hollywood propaganda. (Indeed, the Times article itself is a prime example of the media distorting the debate in favor of plaintiffs’ attorneys, as it repeats the ATLA viewpoint supporting the McDonald’s coffee case while ignoring the numerous facts and arguments showing why that viewpoint is wrong (Aug. 13 and links therein.)

In Part II, we see a similar logical leap. There is a trivially true point: newspapers report what is, well, newsworthy, and thus big verdicts get reported and small verdicts or defense decisions or verdict reversals don’t get reported. The Times then goes on to conclude that this distorts the debate in favor of tort reform. Why? Why doesn’t it distort the debate in favor of plaintiffs by making outrageously large judgments seem commonplace, by persuading juries that there’s nothing wrong with awarding a billion dollars to get their names in the paper, by making corporations seem like wrongdoers because the defense verdicts get ignored? (Indeed, as Steven Hantler has noted, studies have shown that this bias might be why defendants don’t do more to publicize defense verdicts: the mere fact that a corporate defendant is sued implies wrongdoing to a majority of people.) The Times cites absolutely no evidence that people misperceive the tort reform debate in favor of tort reformers, or even that they misperceive the tort reform at all, much less because of these media decisions. But it feels free to assume this conclusion and report it.

The tort reform opponents (the only tort reform supporter quoted, Theodore Boutrous, is quoted for the fact that newspaper ignore defense verdicts) and the LA Times make hay over three statistics, but each is irrelevant.

First, the “number of lawsuits” filed in thirty-five states has declined four percent in ten years between 1993 and 2002. But so what? If a doctor says a patient is dangerously obese because he weighs 480 pounds, I don’t think she’ll be less concerned because the patient weighed 500 pounds ten years ago. More importantly, the number of “lawsuits” isn’t the relevant metric. In particular, the nature of a “lawsuit” has changed. Between 1993 and 2002, it became increasingly common for litigation to feature hundreds or thousands or millions of claims tied together in a single suit. Liability has expanded such that many states permit plaintiffs to recover without any showing of concrete injury. These are problems that aren’t a function of simple counting.

The second and third statistics are also irrelevant: the median jury verdict has allegedly decreased in the last ten years, and defendants win jury trials about 50% of the time. But so what? An anecdote in the LA Times and covered in Overlawyered demonstrates precisely why this is irrelevant: Ford won at least twelve straight jury verdicts over allegations that its SUV was defectively designed—but a San Diego jury awarded $367 million (Jun. 3, 2004). (Ironically, the LA Times repeats the mistake it is commenting on—it fails to report that this verdict was reduced to “only” $273 million and that Ford has appealed.) This is a huge verdict, with a substantial impact on the total verdict awards and the mean jury award (and there were several that were even higher in 2004), but it affects the median barely a jot. Juries went with the defense more than 90% of the time, the median decision was $0—but the mean plaintiff won over $20 million. Which statistic do you think Ford shareholders care about the most? Which statistic do you think the plaintiffs’ bar cares about the most? Hint: it’s the same statistic that the LA Times ignores, the statistic that shows that the cost of litigation has been steadfastly increasing (POL Jan. 10). When the plaintiffs’ bar engages in settlement negotiations with Ford next products liability lawsuit, they’re not going to be persuaded to lower their demands because the median verdict has dropped. (Myron Levin, “Coverage of Big Awards for Plaintiffs Helps Distort View of Legal System”, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 15).