Search Results for ‘winnebago’

Another McDonald’s coffee urban legend

The McDonald’s coffee case came up in a comment-board discussion of the MySpace suit on the WSJ Law Blog, and, as is common thanks to a tremendously successful propaganda campaign by the plaintiffs’ bar, a law student popped up to “debunk” the story. He justified the ludicrous award by arguing that the coffee was so hot to “melt the plaintiff’s pantyhose to her skin.” Well, that is rather hot coffee, if true, since the melting point of nylon is hundreds of degrees higher than the boiling point for coffee, so I would have no problem holding McDonald’s liable if they were selling coffee at a temperature where it ceases to be liquid or solid.

Of course, it’s not true that the coffee was so hot to melt pantyhose (and Stella Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants), but one looks forward to Jonathan Turley decrying this urban legend that’s distorting the debate over legal reform.

Myron Levin and the Los Angeles Times do it again

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).

L.A. Times on “lawsuit urban legends”, cont’d

A few further thoughts on the absurdly one-sided Los Angeles Times piece that Ted nails below:

To me, the most outrageous moment in the piece comes early, when GWU lawprof Jonathan Turley is quoted saying of stories like the bogus “Winnebago cruise control” tale: “The people that created these stories did so with remarkable skill,” that skill being aimed at “influencing policy”. Turley thus clearly implies that the silly Winnebago story, or the list of supposed “Stella Awards”, or both, were purposely fabricated by sinister if unknown persons in order to influence policy debates, as opposed to, say, originally being someone’s idea of satire and then being passed along by people who wrongly believed them genuine. LAT reporter Myron Levin permits this very serious charge of deliberate fabrication to hang in the air unexamined and unanswered, which does much to set the tone of his piece.

Yet Prof. Turley, a figure much quoted in the press and frequently on camera, offers precisely zero evidence to back up his serious charge that someone deliberately made up the Winnebago/Stella stories and passed them off as real in hopes of influencing policy. Okay, Prof. Turley, either document that charge, or retract it — or else face a very reasonable suspicion that you yourself are willing to fabricate serious charges for which you lack any evidence.

The Association of Trial Lawyers of America for months has been pushing the theme that the L.A. Times ran with today and it, too, offers not the slightest evidence for its claim that someone purposely fabricated the Winnebago/Stella stories to influence policy debates. ATLA’s floating of that theme (“Updated
February 2005”) can be found here (claiming stories are “designed [emphasis added] to perpetuate the myth that there is a ‘lawsuit crisis’ in America … clearly are part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine Americans’ confidence in our legal system,” etc., etc.) Curiously, for an article that raises concerns about supposed attempts by well-organized groups to influence press coverage, the LAT story never mentions ATLA at all, merely alluding vaguely to trial lawyers in a place or two.

Much of this is of course old news to readers of Overlawyered, which four years ago printed an extensive debunking of the bogus stories that the L.A. Times says legal reformers are eager to circulate. We know through referrer traffic that large numbers of web users continue to land on our entry by searching on strings such as “winnebago + cruise control + lawsuit” (& welcome Patterico, Gail Heriot, Southern California Law Blog readers).

“Legal Urban Legends Hold Sway”?

The Los Angeles Times begins a series on “tall tales of outrageous jury awards.” The Times mentions in particular the “Winnebago cruise control lawsuit” urban legend, and suggests the tort reform movement is based on false tales like that one. One problem with their theory: Google the Winnebago lawsuit, and you’ll find that the only people vast majority of the leading sites* mentioning that entertaining (but false) story are… people pointing out that it is an urban legend. Jonathan Turley has done more to spread the story through his USA Today article insulting the tort-reform movement than anyone else. There are thousands of true tales of lawsuits on equally ludicrous, without the need to resort to the Winnebago story. It’s the litigation lobby that has made the most out of the Winnebago story, because by focusing on the occasional made-up tale, they can avoid addressing the real stories of abuse.

But you wouldn’t know it from the appallingly one-sided Los Angeles Times story. The reporter interviews Jonathan Turley, Joanne Doroshow of the trial-lawyer-friendly Center for Justice & Democracy, and tort reform opponent Theodore Eisenberg of Cornell, before giving Victor Schwartz a sentence at the end. The newspaper even cites the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit as a legitimate result by uncritically repeating the standard ATLA characterization of the litigation. “‘The irony about the McDonald’s case is that it actually, in my view, was a meaningful and worthy lawsuit,’ George Washington University’s Turley said. Yet advocates and pundits have ‘made it synonymous with court abuse.'” (Perhaps because it is court abuse. At least fourteen out of fifteen courts who have heard identical coffee-spill cases have disagreed with Turley.) (Myron Levin, Aug. 14).

[Aug. 17 update: Since I posted this, Google reshuffled its rankings, so now we have the self-referential problem that many of the leading Winnebago lawsuit sites are now referring to this page or the LA Times article. In addition, a couple of pages uncritically repeating the glurge have snuck their way into the top thirty, so it’s more accurate to say that anyone looking up the story on the Internet, where the lawsuit story is supposedly “pervasive,” can’t help but discover that it’s false. Furthermore, the point remains that (1) no serious tort-reform organization is pushing this story (except to refute it, as Overlawyered did four years ago); (2) the Winnebago story is not “widely accepted,” because one has to search through thousands of articles and opinion pieces to find a handful of columnists who made a quickly-retracted claim; (3) the LA Times ignores far more pervasive urban legends that are used to argue against tort reform; and (4) the LA Times is guilty of spreading a one-sided and misleading account of the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit. Other discussion: Aug. 14, Aug. 15, Aug. 16.]

Lawyers target milk

Jonathan Turley is fond of claiming (without any real basis) that litigation reform advocates make up stories to promote tort reform. The reality is that the plaintiffs’ bar provides us with stories far more entertaining than any fictional Winnebago lawsuit.

Remember the day of June 21, 2005, because that’s the day that a sufficient number of the world’s problems were solved that a “public-interest group” has nothing better to do than to troll for plaintiffs to sue the dairy industry for not putting warning labels on milk about lactose intolerance. This is yet another publicity stunt of Dan Kinburn and the misnamed Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, over 95% of whom are not physicians; last time they asked for publicity, we gave it to them. The American Medical Association has called PCRM a “fringe organization” that uses “unethical tactics” and is “interested in perverting medical science.” (via Taylor, who is waiting for vegetarians to sue over beef commercials)

Welcome Walter Williams readers

The “Winnebago cruise control” litigation urban legend (see here and here) has claimed its latest victim in the person of syndicated columnist and George Mason U. economist Walter Williams (“Some things I wonder about”, TownHall, Dec. 31, see final item). Now, in a follow-up column (“An urban legend”, Jan. 7), Williams generously points readers to this site as a source of many real-life stories little less outrageous than the fictitious Winnebago story. To find details on each story, follow the links: Minn. hockey fan served too much alcohol; Ohio carpet installers ignore warning label; Indiana robber sues convenience store clerk who shot him as he fled holdup scene; boozy Galveston ramp roll-off; and the Stella Liebeck hot coffee spill case (we think, however, that it may have been our colleague Ted Frank, rather than Prof. David (not Richard!) Bernstein, who contributed the point about clothing). For more such cases, see our personal responsibility archives, older and newer series. We wonder how many readers directed Williams’s attention to the falsity of the other, unrelated urban legend that was showcased in his Dec. 31 column, namely his use of bogus (and long-since-refuted) numbers on life expectancy for gays. We could have helped him out on that one, too.

Lawsuit urban legends

The following advisory originally appeared Aug. 27, 2001 on Overlawyered in slightly different form. It is reprinted here because it is among the information most often requested by visitors to the site.

You’ve probably seen it in your inbox: a fast-circulating email, often labeled “Stella Awards”, which lists six awful-sounding damage awards (to a hubcap thief injured when the car drives off, a burglar trapped in a house who had to eat dog food, etc.). Circumstantial details such as dates, names, and places make the cases sound more real, but all signs indicate that the list is fictitious from beginning to end, reports the urban-legends site (Barbara Mikkelson, “Inboxer rebellion: tortuous torts“). Snopes also has posted detailed discussions of two of the other urban legends we get sent often, the “contraceptive jelly” yarn, which originated with a tabloid (“A woman sued a pharmacy from which she bought contraceptive jelly because she became pregnant even after eating the jelly (with toast).” — “Jelly babied“) and the cigar-arson fable (“A cigar aficionado insures his stogies against fire, then tries to collect from his insurance company after he smokes them.” — “Cigarson“). And the story about the man setting the cruise control in his new Winnebago recreational vehicle, leaving the driver’s seat, and then suing the company after the resulting accident? That’s an urban legend too. What we wonder is, why would people want to compile lists of made-up legal bizarreries when they can find a vast stockpile of all-too-real ones just by visiting this website [and in particular its personal responsibility archives, older and newer series]?

NAMES IN STORIES: The never-happened stories include tales about “Kathleen Robertson of Austin Texas” (trips on her toddler in furniture store); “Carl Truman of Los Angeles” (hubcap theft) “Terrence Dickson of Bristol Pennsylvania” (trapped in house), “Jerry Williams of Little Rock Arkansas” (bit by dog after shooting it with pellet gun), “Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania” (slips on drink she threw), and “Kara Walton of Claymont, Delaware” (breaks teeth while sneaking through window into club). All these incidents, to repeat, appear to be completely fictitious and unrelated to any actual persons with these names.