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Coverage of Big Awards for Plaintiffs Helps Distort View of Legal System

In most such cases, the verdicts are either later rejected or the amounts are severely lowered.

August 15, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

When a jury sticks it to a huge corporation, it's always big news. A crushing verdict of $4.9 billion against General Motors Corp. in Los Angeles drew massive media coverage, as did a $5-billion award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and a $144.8-billion thrashing of the tobacco industry in a Florida class action.

Mega-verdicts such as these have helped fuel legislative campaigns to overhaul the legal system by limiting lawsuits and jury awards. Driving the crusade for what business groups call tort reform is the notion that frivolous suits and jackpot judgments are strangling the economy.

While acknowledging that excesses no doubt occur, many legal observers say there is no evidence that people are filing more lawsuits or that juries are getting more generous -- indeed, there is some data to the contrary. And mammoth verdicts, in the rare cases in which they occur, almost always are tossed out or sharply reduced later.

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.

If such context is absent from news reports, it's not because of media bias but "the holler of the dollar," said William Haltom, a professor of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound and co-author of "Distorting the Law: Politics, Media and the Litigation Crisis."

News coverage is "in favor of the noteworthy and the attention-arresting," Haltom said. Journalists "are expected to produce something that someone is going to want to watch, listen to or read."

"From the media's perspective, extremes are news," New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said. The humdrum workings of the legal system, with its minor traffic cases and contract disputes, he said, is "completely distorted by the emphasis on what I would call the grotesque or extreme cases."

At the same time, no one would argue for covering fender-bender suits instead of big cases with broad implications. And plaintiff victories are legitimately more newsworthy because they change the status quo -- moving money around and exposing dangerous products or financial wrongdoing.

But that can give a skewed impression of what typically happens in the courts, because research shows that news coverage shapes perceptions of the frequency of events.

For example, surveys show that people generally believe they face a greater risk of dying from widely publicized disasters such as fires and murders than from diseases like diabetes -- when the opposite is true. Haltom said "it's reasonable to presume that people who read about all sorts of plaintiffs' victories get an inflated notion of how often plaintiffs win."

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%.

A plaintiff win "is perceived to be more newsworthy than a headline that says 'jury rejects arguments that a product is unsafe,' " said Theodore Boutros Jr. of law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who has represented Ford Motor Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and various news organizations, including The Times.

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