Headlines don't tell full story on big jury awards

Detroit Free Press
Thursday, October 20, 2011

If headlines are any indication, it's a swell time to be in the business of suing people -- especially people endowed with what we in the news media like to call deep pockets.

So it may surprise you to learn that, truth is, it's a perfectly dreadful time to be a trial lawyer, particularly in Michigan, and that jury awards and settlements of the kind that garner intense media coverage are not only rare, but likely to become rarer as Republican state lawmakers continue to erect new obstacles to legal redress. (Deep-pocketed defendants, it turns out, are also uncommonly generous political donors.)

Eye-popping anomalies

A study released Tuesday by the New York Law School's Center for Justice and Democracy says news media coverage of civil litigation continues to perpetuate the misconception that juries "routinely award eye-popping verdicts for frivolous claims" and that such judgments threaten the solvency of government agencies and ethical businesses.

To make its point, the Ralph Nader-esque center surveyed mass media reports in one 75-day window last summer and found that the average plaintiff's award reported ($4.6 million) was 192 times the median plaintiff's verdict reported by the U.S. Justice Department ($24,000). Even when out-of-court settlements were included, the typical media-reported plaintiff result was 75 times higher than the median jury verdict.

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