* If you look at trade publications aimed at a readership of lawyers themselves, such as National Law Journal, Lawyers’ Weekly and so forth, you find a pattern quite similar to the one in the popular press that alarms the L.A. Times, with gigantic verdicts getting major coverage, and later reductions, reversals and settlements much less. From what I can see, this reflects the news sense of their readership: both plaintiff’s and defense lawyers, as well as many transactional planners, are inclined to invest more time reading the first type of story than the second.
* Why is this? Well, from the standpoint of lawyers as well as most of the other players in the system, a $100 million verdict that’s later overturned (or knocked down to $20 million, etc.) makes for an extremely different data point from a case that comes in at $0 (or $20 million) in the first place. It will have very different implications for defendants’ propensity to offer settlements in the future, for plaintiffs’ demands, and so forth. Even if one had psychic powers and could unerringly predict which big cases would fail to hold up at later stages, it would still be typical for such cases to retain very real influence, one reason for their news value.
* Monday’s L.A. Times piece, like its Sunday predecessor, echoes complaints that the litigation lobby has been making for years (search on “reduced on appeal”). There’s a great unexamined irony here, however, because entirely absent from the Times’s account is the question: who seeks publicity for these verdicts in the first place? A glance at P.R. Newswire is enough to confirm that plaintiff’s law firms and their allies are ordinarily the source of press releases calling attention to big verdicts (here, here, and here, for example), but far less commonly issue releases calling attention to later reductions or reversals on appeal. Most defendants, meanwhile, are anything but eager to stimulate heavy press coverage of big cases that they lose; moreover, many adopt a posture of regarding all publicity about suits against them as harmful even when they prevail, which is one reason it’s common for them to avoid seeking extensive publicity when they manage to secure defense verdicts or post-trial reductions.
In short, the observed pattern of coverage — record-setting verdicts on the front page, post-trial reductions buried on p. C22 — is precisely that sought by the law firms that bring the cases. When the same law firms (through their collective agents such as ATLA) later gripe that the resulting pattern of coverage skews public thinking on wider policy matters, maybe what they’re really saying is, “Hey, next time don’t pay so much attention to our press releases.”
Kevin Drum, whose Washington Monthly blog is Gullibility Central when it comes to this kind of story, is naturally much impressed with the LAT effort.