Posts Tagged ‘media bias’

Another thought on the Dick Schaap lawsuit

Walter’s entry below on the Dick Schaap verdict misses a fascinating part of the case. While Schaap’s family lawyer at trial blamed three doctors for failing to diagnose lung damage from use of the medicine amiodarone (and the jury mysteriously held one doctor negligent while exonerating the other two), just two years earlier, the Schaap family and its lawyer had a different story to tell. Then, the family announced, Dick Schaap was killed because of an infection caused by the hospital’s lack of adequate hygiene standards. Unfortunately for the Schaaps, the theory didn’t stand up and the hospital was dismissed from the case, but not before ABC Primetime Live credulously reported in 2003 the supposed scandal of the hospital’s failure to prevent a “velociraptor”-like infection.

It was a case study of what can go wrong in American health care today, said the family’s lawyer, Tom Moore.

“If you ever speak to a surgeon, ‘Doc, what can I expect with my hip replacement?’ — at the top of the list is infection, post-operative infection,” he said.

(The CBS Early Show repeated the story a few days later: ask yourself if you could predict from that news coverage that the hospital would be vindicated before trial.) Without being able to tell the jury about germs that act like deadly dinosaurs, Moore invented a new theory and settled for putting Billy Crystal on the stand to wow the jury with tales of Schaap’s generosity and talent. The defense lawyer, Mark Aaronson, seems to have put his finger on the matter:

“Is everybody who dies in a hospital the victim of medical negligence?” he asked rhetorically. “So ultimately, a theory had to be concocted in front of a jury in order for a claim of damages to be made.”

(Andrew Jacobs, “Jury Deliberates Lawsuit Over Death of Dick Schaap”, NY Times, Jun. 23).

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Update: Joshua Flax/Chrysler verdict

More press coverage on the $105 million collapsing seat verdict (Nov. 24). The Fulton County Daily Report spells out the plaintiff’s case, without much attempt at balance. A press release from the plaintiffs’ lawyers claims that Chrysler experts admitted that a “stronger” seat would not have collapsed and that other Chryslers have “stronger” seats–but leaves it ambiguous whether the first “stronger” is referring to something different than the second “stronger.” The artful phrasing in the release (instead of a straightforward statement about whether Chrysler’s experts admitted Joshua Flax would not have been hurt if he had been in a Mercedes), combined with the improbability that Chrysler would go to trial with such a fact pattern, suggests that this is sophistic equivocation. (R. Robin McDonald, “Partner Wins $105 Million Verdict Against Chrysler”, Fulton County Daily Report, Dec. 1; Butler Wooten press release, Nov. 23). The Detroit News has extensive followup coverage, featuring a photo of the totaled minivan from which five people walked away, and an interview with a NHTSA spokesman who notes that “If you merely increase seatback strength, you may be trading one set of injuries for another. These seats did exactly what they were designed to do.” (Jeff Plungis, “Trial puts spotlight on safety of car seats”, Dec. 19).

In the Detroit News article, Clarence Ditlow complains that there’s an increase in collapsing front seats hitting children in the rear seats–but that’s surely a result of fewer children being seated in the front, where they were in danger of passenger-side airbag injuries. (Airbag-child fatalities have declined from 60 in 1995 to 10 in 1999.) Indeed, as the Washington Post notes, notwithstanding their headline, child deaths per mile traveled is down, as is the long-run trend of total child deaths. The Post article also suggests areas where we will see future auto litigation as new safety features transition from optional to standard. I’ve worked defending an auto company in shift-interlock litigation, for example. (Greg Schneider, “Kids, at Risk and Neglected”, Washington Post, Dec. 5).

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Scarborough unfair

Did you know that MSNBC talk host and former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough is an attorney with Pensacola, Fla.’s Levin Papantonio, one of the nation’s premier mass tort firms, which has its fingers in everything from asbestos, breast implants and prescription drugs to aviation accidents to tobacco to Wall Street to environmentalist assaults on factory farming? Or that Scarborough continues on the firm’s payroll despite his on-air fame? We didn’t. Now Scarborough has gotten in a bit of trouble by inviting name partner Mike Papantonio to come on the show and attack “a wood-preserving company called Osmose, saying it makes a dangerous product used in playground equipment and has ‘figured out how to poison our children and make a profit in the meantime.'” — all without mentioning that Papantonio is his law partner and that his/their firm happens to be suing Osmose. (Howard Kurtz, “MSNBC Host Gets Bitten by His ‘Rat of the Week'”, Washington Post, Sept. 13; Doug Haller, “Joe-TV”, Pensacola News Journal, Sept. 14). Radley Balko and Arthur Silber comment. (Update Jan. 3: Scarborough ceases taking stipends from law firm).

How dangerous is “pressure-treated” (chemically preserved) wood, anyway? Once you get past the scare-headlines about arsenic on the playground, the National Law Journal noted in March that trial lawyers suing makers of the wood have enjoyed very limited success, one reason being that there is no particular illness that predictably results from routine exposure to chromated copper arsenate (CCA). Take care not to inhale gusts of sawdust or fumes from burning wood, and it seems you’re unlikely to have anything to worry about (David Hechler, “The Poisoned Wood Mystery”, National Law Journal, Mar. 20)

Big Food Next?

The first lawsuits against fatty-food sellers were justifiably the subject of parody, but a few months later, without plaintiffs having won a single case, a USA Today front-page article treats the idea of big damages awards as a near-inevitable outcome, quoting two plaintiffs’ lawyers, and without a single quote from anyone suggesting that such lawsuits may not be good public policy. Such coverage has a tendency, of course, to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.