Jury Summons

Jury Summons

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Has The Media Tarnished The Reputation of Civil Litigation

Since the infamous ‘hot coffee’ tort cases of the 1990s many Americans express the sentiment that our society has become far too litigious. Indeed, many people regard civil lawsuits as little more than greed-fueled grasps for undeserved fortunes. The result of the negative popular perception of civil lawsuits has a deleterious effect on the legitimacy of civil jury awards and civil litigators. Civil litigators are often stigmatized as rapacious opportunists who earn a living engaged in thinly veiled barratry. This unfortunate characterization of a class of lawyers may have more to do with selective media coverage and sensationalism rather than a lamentable decline of the legal profession.

Authors Neil Vidmar and Valerie Hans reveal that despite the commonly held belief that civil lawsuits usually lead to large awards, the truth is quite the opposite. In fact, data collected in 2001 showed that the average award in a civil case was a mere $27,000.[1] Moreover, only 8 percent of all cases resulted in awards over one million dollars.[2] If the majority of civil cases result in such modest awards, why, then, is public perception so negative?
According to Vidmar and Hans, the popular criticisms of civil litigation may be unfounded and due largely to the disproportionate media attention received by a small number of questionable cases.[3] Essentially, small awards lack entertainment value and are therefore underrepresented in the media. Calls for improved responsibility and ethics in the media coverage of trials are generally focused toward the interest of fairness for defendants in criminal trials. However, the distortion of civil suit awards in the media undermines the legal profession and stigmatizes civil litigators unjustly. Indeed, in a 2001 study commissioned by Robert A. Clifford regarding the effects of public perception of lawyers he concluded, “Although the public acknowledges the need for lawyers when in trouble, the people surveyed expressed distrust in having to turn to an attorney. Their negative views, however, stem in particular from highly publicized cases and from disparaging advertising.”

Mr. Clifford describes the problem of Americans’ perception of attorneys as a result of how Americans are educated about the judicial system. Rather than by direct observation or participation, most Americans learn about the judicial process from the media. This, according to Clifford, is the wrong way to go about informing the public about who layers are and what they do: “If this country’s legal system is to survive and indeed thrive, we must embrace Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion that the jury system must be honored and, in fact, revered. Americans should not be formulating their opinions necessarily and solely on what novelists and entertainment producers have to say, nor on Jerry Springer’s or Joan Rivers’ standards.” 

Data collected by Vidmar and Hans demonstrate that civil litigation is unjustifiably maligned by the media for entertainment value. The relationship between lawyers, the public, and the media demands greater responsibility from journalists when covering civil cases. Indeed, fair and balanced coverage of civil trials is necessary to preserve the legitimacy of the jury system as a whole.

[1]  Neil Vidmar & Valerie P. Hans, American Juries, at 283 (2007).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.

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