Posts Tagged ‘Erin Brockovich’

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).

New at Point of Law

If you’re not reading our sister site, you’re missing out on a lot. I’ve been doing about half my blog writing over there, on topics that include: a powerful new St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation of asbestos litigation in Madison County, Ill. (here, here and here, with more to come, and note this too); the busy borrowings of Harvard’s Larry Tribe; when “not-for-profits” organize employment suits; Erin Brockovich’s respectability; crime without intent; experts and the CBS scandal; stay open through a hurricane, go to jail; suits over failure to put warnings on sand (yes, sand); West Virginia legal reform; Merrill Lynch/Enron trial; Hayek and the common law, reconsidered; getting creative about tapping homeowners’ policies; AdBusters sues to have its ads run; plaintiff’s lawyers represent criminal defendants to put drugmakers behind the eight ball; update on the law firm that competes on price; Spitzer and investors; Ohio med-mal crisis (and more); a welcome Schwarzenegger veto; dangers of firing your lawyer; ephedra retailer litigation; churchruptcies (if banks can do it…); and hardball in nonprofit hospital litigation.

Plus Ted Frank on tort reform in Mississippi and Jim Copland on California’s Proposition 64 (which would reform the notorious s. 17200 statute); the federal tobacco trial and Boeken; gender bias at work; and Rule 11 revival.

Better bookmark now, before you forget.

“The Erin Brockovich Effect”

Parachuting in without actually touching toe? This time it’s a toxic-tort case in central Florida: “She has never set foot in Hillsborough County’s rural Plant City, but her name alone is influencing news coverage, attracting clients and conferring credibility to illness reports.” The suit alleges that Coronet Industries’ phosphate plant is responsible for a wide range of ills, including those of the lead claimant’s 3-year-old son, who suffers from autism and language disorders. (Ron Matus, “The Erin Brockovich effect: influence, inference”, St. Petersburg Times, Apr. 11). For much more on Brockovich, see Mar. 16, Jan. 3 and links from there, and our Oct. 2000 treatment.

The un-Brockovich

Little-known Beverly Hills reporter Norma Zager may be making herself the number one nemesis of glamourpuss toxic-tort-chaser Erin Brockovich-Ellis. Zager, who is with the Beverly Hills Courier, has tenaciously dug into the facts surrounding Brockovich’s and employer Edward Masry’s wild charges about supposed contamination at Beverly Hills High School (see Jan. 3 and links from there, and our Oct. 2000 treatment). (Eric Umansky, “Muckraker 90210: A Most Unlikely Reporter Nails Erin Brockovich”, Columbia Journalism Review — now there’s a magazine we haven’t often had a chance to quote favorably–, Mar./Apr.).

Erin Brockovich watch

Erin Brockovich’s law firm has filed its third lawsuit against Beverly Hills, its school district and several oil and gas companies, claiming that emissions from an oil derrick on the Beverly Hills High School campus caused former students and others to develop high rates of cancer – or at least put them at greater risk of developing the disease. (“Brockovich Files Third Lawsuit in Cancer Case,” L.A. Times, Jan. 3; Associated Press, “Brockovich Firm Against Sues Beverly Hills,”, Jan. 3 ). City officials have disputed the claims.

The latest lawsuit filed in California state court lists nearly 300 plaintiffs, “a number” of which claim that they “do not have cancer but are at greater risk of developing the disease.” Earlier posts on the media-savvy paralegal’s environmental lawsuits can be found on Nov. 19, July 15, and elsewhere in this space.

“Erin Brockovich’s Junk Science”

“Her new suit against oil companies and Beverly Hills has little scientific grounding” and the one that originally established her fame, over groundwater contamination in Hinkley, Calif., wasn’t much better, argues columnist Leon Jaroff at Time magazine (Jul. 11). We looked into the Brockovich saga a few years ago and came to very similar conclusions (Reason magazine, Oct. 2000); see also numerous posts in this space.

Archived environment items, pre-July 2003

See separate entries for archived entries on animal rights and mold.

Wildlife management, species protection, 2003:U.K. roundup” (licensing of exotic pet fish), Jun. 12-15. 2001:False trail of missing lynx“, Dec. 18; “Pricing out the human species“, Aug. 22-23; “Stories that got away“, Jul. 23; “Bush’s environmental centrism“, Apr. 24.  2000:Endangered list“, Dec. 4; “Snakes’ rights not always paramount” (man killed snake in self-defense), Aug. 18-20; “‘Imperfect laws add to danger of perfect storms’“, Aug. 10.  1999:Property owners obliged to host rattlesnakes“, Oct. 12; “Knock him over with a feather” (migratory bird contraband laws), Sept. 11; “Mow’ better ADA claims” (claim of “exotic prairie plants” by resident who didn’t want to mow her lawn), Jul. 26.

Bounty-hunting in New Jersey“, Jun. 10-11, 2003.

‘State is suing ex-dry cleaners’” (Calif., Superfund), May 27, 2003.

Suing ’til the cows come home“, May 20, 2003. 

U.K. roundup” (global warming suits), Jun. 12-15, 2003; “Tort suits over global warming“, Feb. 6-9, 2003; “Global warming suit?“, Jul. 31, 2001 (& Aug. 10-12); “Plus extra damages for having argued with us“, Aug. 19, 1999. 

California’s hazardous holiday” (fireplaces), Dec. 27-29, 2002; “Chestnuts-roasting menace averted“, Dec. 24-27, 2001; “Put out that match” (agricultural burning, residential wood burning), Feb. 28-Mar. 1, 2001.

“Right to know” laws, 2002:California’s hazardous holiday” (acrylamide), Dec. 27-29; “‘Lawyers who sue to settle’“, Nov. 4-5; “Chocolate, gas-pump fumes, playground sand and so much more“, Oct. 15; “‘Greedy or Just Green’“, Mar. 13-14.  2001:There’ll always be a California” (chocolate and Prop 65), Dec. 4; Letter to the editor (lutefisk exempted from toxic-substance status in Wisconsin), Nov. 29; “Be somewhat less afraid” (nuclear plant terrorism), Nov. 30-Dec. 2; “‘U.S. Debates Info on Chemical Hazards’” (“right to know” and terrorism), Nov. 12; “Chemical-plant vulnerabilities: read all about them“, Oct. 1. 1999:Lockyer vs. keys” (California attorney general declares brass a toxic hazard), Nov. 2. 

How much did you say that Indian legend was worth?“, Sept. 25-26, 2002; “Final innings for Kennewick Man“, Sept. 27-28, 2000; “Free Kennewick Man!” (pre-Columbian remains), Oct. 11, 1999. 

Low exposures, 2002:A breast-cancer myth“, Sept. 3-4; “‘Unharmed woman awarded $104,000’” (Canada), May 6. 2001:There’ll always be a California” (chocolate and Prop 65), Dec. 4; “‘Incense link to cancer’“, Aug. 27-28; “‘Candles might be polluting your home, EPA says’“, Jun. 19; “While you were out: the carbonless paper crusade“, Apr. 25 (& letter to the editor, May 18); “Hunter sues store over camouflage mask“, Jan. 12-14. 2000: ‘Airbag chemical on trial’“, Aug. 14; “Multiple chemical sensitivity from school construction“, Jul. 3-4; “Feelings of nausea? Get in line” (Baton Rouge chemical spill), Jan. 26-27. 1999:Lockyer vs. keys” (California attorney general declares brass a toxic hazard), Nov. 2. 

Zoning, land use, 2002:How much did you say that Indian legend was worth?“, Sept. 25-26; “‘Preserving’ History at Bayonet Point“, Feb. 15-17; “Planners tie up land for twenty years“, Jan. 18-20.  2001:Columnist-fest” (John Tierney on NYC battle over IKEA site), May 25-27; “Lessons of shrub-case jailing“, May 17; “Perils of regulatory discretion“, Jan. 24-25. 2000:Cornfield maze as zoning violation“, Oct. 30.  1999:Great moments in zoning law” (rescued pets from storm, charged with running unlawful animal shelter), Nov. 22.

Mercury in dental fillings“, Jul. 16-17, 2002 (& Nov. 4-5, 2002). 

Going to blazes” (logging and Western fires), Jul. 1-2, 2002; “Credibility up in smoke?” (same), Jul. 12-14, 2002; letter to the editor, Oct. 23. 

Industrial farming:‘Tampa Judge Tosses Out Class-Action Suit Against Hog Company’“, Jul. 3-9, 2002; “RFK Jr. blasted for hog farm remarks“, Apr. 15, 2002 (& Apr. 17, Apr. 19-21, letter to the editor and editor’s response, Apr. 19); “Chickens are next“, Feb. 6-7, 2002; “Judge throws out hog farm suit“, May 7, 2001; “Trial lawyers vs. hog farms“, Dec. 7, 2000; “This little piggy got taken to court“, Sept. 12, 2000; “Not so high off the hog“, Oct. 4, 1999. 

‘San Francisco Verdict Bodes Ill for Oil Industry’“, Jun. 11-12, 2002. 

‘Legal fight over chemical spill ends with whimper’” (W.V.), Jun. 7-9, 2002. 

Flowers, perfume in airline cabins not OK?” (Canada), May 17-19, 2002; “Scented hair gel, deodorant could mean jail time for Canadian youth“, Apr. 24, 2000.

The mystery of the transgenic corn“, May 14-15, 2002.

“Erin Brockovich”, 2002:‘Erin Brockovich, the Brand’“, Apr. 29-30.  2001:Exxon Brockovich vs. Erin Valdez“, Nov. 15; “NBC mulls Brockovich talk show“, Nov. 6, 2001; “Brockovich a heroine?  Julia really can act“, Mar. 23-25.  2000:Errin’ Brockovich?“, Dec. 21, 2000; “‘All about Erin’“, Oct. 12; “More woes for ‘Brockovich’ lawyers“, Jun. 22-25;  “Brockovich story, cont’d: the judges’ cruise“, Apr. 18; Brockovich story breaks wide open“, Apr. 17; “Plume of controversy“, Apr. 14-16; “Hollywood special“, Mar. 30.  1999:A Civil Action II?“, July 7. 

Trial lawyer/enviro alliance?  “RFK Jr. blasted for hog farm remarks“, Apr. 15, 2002 (& Apr. 17, Apr. 19-21, letter to the editor and editor’s response, Apr. 19); “‘Working’ for whom?” (Environmental Working Group), May 23, 2001; “Judge throws out hog farm suit“, May 7, 2001; “‘Bogus’ assault on Norton“, Jan. 18, 2001; “Trial lawyers vs. hog farms“, Dec. 7, 2000.

‘Former clients sue attorney O’Quinn’” (Kennedy Heights case), Apr. 8-9, 2002. 

Arsenic: one last dose?“, Mar. 22-24, 2002; “The view from Arsenictown“, Sept. 11, 2001; “‘The arithmetic of arsenic’“, Aug. 17-19; “Bush’s environmental centrism“, April 24; “Tempest in an arsenic-laced teacup?“, Apr. 18; “‘Bogus’ assault on Norton“, Jan. 18; “The Times vs. Gale Norton“, Jan. 15; “Ecology and economy“, Jan. 5-7, 2001. 

Liability concerns fell giant sequoia“, Mar. 12, 2002. 

Environmental lawsuits vs. military readiness“, Jan. 2-3, 2002.

Overlawyered schools roundup” (environmental impact statement for teacher layoffs?), Dec. 7-9, 2001.

Infectious disease conquered, CDC now chases sprawl“, Nov. 9-11, 2001.

States lag in curbing junk science“, May 29, 2001.

‘Family awarded $1 billion in lawsuit’” (Louisiana land contamination), May 24, 2001. 

Prospect of $3 gas“, May 10, 2001.

Who needs power anyway?:Sweetness and light from Bill Lockyer“, Jun. 1-3, 2001 (& see June 8-10, June 22-24); “California electricity linkfest“, Mar. 26, 2001; “Brownout, Shivers & Dim, attorneys at law“, Oct. 11, 2000; “Worse than Y2K?” (EPA/DOJ suit against coal-burning utility plants), Nov. 18-19, 1999. 

Seventh Circuit rebukes EPA” (Superfund search and seizure), Apr. 23, 2001. 

Attorneys’ fees:Stories that got away” (Endangered Species Act suits), Jul. 23, 2001; “Losers should pay” (columnist Thomas Sowell; injunctions, bonding requirements), Aug. 4-7, 2000; “Marbled Murrelet v. Babbitt: heads I win, tails let’s call it even” (“one-way” fee shifts), Sept. 8, 1999 (& see National Law Journal, Dec. 14, 1999).

Enviro litigator: debate belongs in Congress, not courts“, Dec. 29, 2000-Jan. 2, 2001.

Federal power over mud puddles?” (wetlands case), Nov. 28, 2000. 

From the evergreen file: cancer alley a myth?“, Nov. 8, 2000. 

‘A Civil Action’ and Hollywood views of lawyers“, Jun. 20, 2000. 

Don’t cooperate” (lawyers’ advice re local health survey), Jun. 9-11, 2000.

EPA’s high courtroom loss rate“, May 26-29, 2000; “When agencies like getting sued“, Dec. 6, 1999.

After the great power-line panic“, May 24, 2000; “Another scare starts to fizzle” (endocrine disrupters), Aug. 19, 1999. 

This side of parodies” (“dihydrogen monoxide” parody), May 10, 2000.

Diapered wildlife?” (animal emissions as environmental problem), Apr. 10, 2000; “Backyard trash burning” (suspected as major dioxin source), Jan. 6, 2000.

Emerging campaign issue: ‘brownfields’ vs. Superfund lawyers“, Apr. 4, 2000; “Mayors: liability fears stalling ‘brownfields’ development“, Feb. 26-27, 2000. 

Lawyers for famine and wilderness-busting?” (anti-biotech), Jan. 3, 1999. 

Weekend reading: evergreens” (Race car great Bobby Unser’s snowmobiling rap), Dec. 3-5, 1999. 

Leave that mildew alone” (EPA considers mildew-proof paint to be pesticide), Nov. 30, 1999.

Flag-burning protest requires environmental permits” (one for smoke, one for fire), Nov. 3, 1999.

A mile wide and an inch deep” (EPA considers Platte River impaired because sun heats it up), Oct. 15, 1999.

Careful what you tell your lawyer” (feds demand waiver of lawyer-client confidentiality in environmental cases), Sept. 14, 1999; “Overlawyered skies not always safer” (environmental audits and other “self-critical analysis”), Jul. 19, 1999. 

Tainted cycle” (class action over infectious bacterium in Milwaukee water supply), Sept. 2, 1999. 

Articles by editor Walter Olson:

Hollywood vs. the Truth” (“Civil Action” movie), Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1998. 

Don’t Steal This Book“, review of Property Matters by James DeLong, Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1997 (property rights).

Lawyers with Stethoscopes: Clients Beware“, Manhattan Institute Civil Justice Memo # 26, June 1996.