Friday, April 15, 2011

Media Gets Another Multi-Million Dollar Verdict Story Wrong

Recently an article appeared in the Hartford Courant with the following headline: "Hartford Jury Awards Injured State Trooper $16.8 Million."  To me, this article is notable for what is missing - the crucial end of the story.  From the headline and the story, the average reader will assume that this state trooper is about to receive millions of dollars in compensation.  Only a reader who is properly educated about how the system works will understand that the conclusion of this story should read: "As a result, the state trooper is not likely to receive any compensation, despite the jury's verdict."

After long struggling to determine if the mainstream media's failure to tell the whole story in personal injury cases was the result of lack of experience, reporters hamstrung by editorial constraints, or the pursuance of an agenda, I have given up trying to figure it out.  Instead, my crusade has been to properly educate students about how the system works. And in this regard, Business Law texts are not very helpful.  Very few have any information on insurance and those that do, do not address the role that insurance coverage and insurance companies play in the real-life aspects of a civil liability claim. We do our students a disservice if we teach them "Torts" and "Judicial Procedure" without addressing the nitty grittty issues that play out behind the scenes. Most of my students come into class believing that Stella Liebeck (the McDonald's Coffee Case plaintiff) received millions of dollars. The media reporting of the amount of the verdict rarely mentioned the reduced judgment award or the ultimate settlement. 

The article referenced here reports a jury verdict in a lawsuit brought by a Connecticut state trooper who, two years prior, was injured while on the job after being struck by a drunk driver. The officer suffered severe injuries to both knees and back injuries.  He was subsequently required to take a disability retirement.  The article reported that medical bills were nearly $100,000. A dram shop action was brought against the bar that served the driver and the driver was sued, personally.

The article in this case accurately reports that the verdict against the bar will likely be reduced to the dram shop statutory limit of $250,000.  However, it does not mention that after attorney's fees and pay back of worker's compensation benefits, there is likely nothing left for the plaintiff.  The impressive $12.6M award against the drunk driver is likely uncollectable.  The article reported that the driver, "did not appear to defend himself in the trial."  It takes an understanding of the civil justice system well beyond that possessed by the typical undergraduate to understand that since no one represented the driver in the case, there is apparently no insurance coverage available to pay any portion of the judgment.

Kudos should be given to alternative media such as the Hartford Advocate.  In reporting a $125,000 wrongful death settlement with the City of Hartford, the Advocate went the extra yard and reported that after attorneys' fees, expenses of litigation, and re-payment of a state welfare lien, the family will recieve a little less than $20,000.

Post update 4/24/11: Kudos should also go to Hartford Courant reporter David Owens for a 4/23/11 story about a civil suit following a horrendous accident.  The story mentions the existence of insurance coverage in a way that introduces the public to insurance considerations as a integral part of a lawsuit.

The video below shows Fox News looking at "whacky warning labels" and reporting that a jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.7M without mentioning that the judgment was actually for less than 30% of that amount.

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