Trial lawyers’ television ads are, as a genre, so over-the-top that you might think they’re parody proof. If you watch late-night TV you know what I’m talking about: “Toxic drug warning!” “Legal Alert!” “Attention: You may be entitled to compensation!” The ads aren’t artful, to say the least, but they are effective. If they weren’t, trial lawyers would not be spending nearly a billion dollars a year, according to a study the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) released in October, to reach out to potential clients.
On Monday, a group called Sick of Lawsuits announced an ad campaign against plaintiffs lawyers’ ad campaigns. The group created a mock trial lawyer commercial with all of the typical tropes: the banging gavel, the green money signs, the flashing “Call us now!” alert. But the ad’s warning is not to believe what you hear from trial lawyers. As the group says on its website, “Everywhere they turn, consumers are surrounded by aggressive lawsuit advertising that uses sensationalist and misleading information to lure or scare people into lawsuits. It’s more than annoying. It’s dangerous when people start to believe that everything they see in these ads is true.”
Sick of Lawsuits is a collaboration between the remaining chapters of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, or CALA. The press release announcing the group’s campaign against trial lawyers’ ads called Sick of Lawsuits “a legal watchdog group of more than 200,000 people.” But Joanne Doroshow of the Center for Justice and Democracy, who co-authored an expose in 2000 on CALA’s corporate backers, said that number seems vastly exaggerated. The once robust CALA effort – funded in the 1990s by tobacco companies and other corporate targets of personal injury suits – has dwindled to a handful of chapters, she said. (The GuideStar database on nonprofits lists CALA groups only in Texas, California, Maryland and West Virginia.) “They have tiny budgets and basically, barely exist,” Doroshow said.
In that same spirit of informing the public, you should know that if you clicked Sick of Lawsuits’ “Donate now” tab on Tuesday morning, you would have wound up at a contributors’ page tied to the American Tort Reform Association. (As of Tuesday afternoon, the link between the sites seems to have been disabled.)
Jared Saylor, director of communication at the American Association for Justice, said Sick of Lawsuits’ connection to ATRA belies its grassroots claims. “This so-called grassroots campaign is a poor attempt by a corporate front group to trick the American people,” he said in an email statement. Doroshow said ATRA helped create what she calls the “Astroturf” CALA effort decades ago. The Sick of Lawsuits collaboration, she said, “probably reflects some desperation on ATRA’s part.”
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