Friday, September 14th, 2012
This post might be subtitled “Why you can’t believe everything you read in a newspaper.” For many years, powerful interest groups have been planting phony statistics in newspapers to build support for “tort reform.” This amounts to tricking Americans into giving up their right to take grievances to court.”
“Tort” is a legal term for a wrongful act that injures someone’s person, property, or reputation. The injured person has the right to sue to be compensated for the injury. In the 1970s, after it became clear that tobacco and asbestos caused lung cancer and mesothelioma, dying people sued tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. Companies began to call for “tort reform” to make it harder for people to sue.
Here’s an example of how newspapers are being scammed: For many years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released an annual report called the State Liability Systems Survey. The survey is supposed to be a measure of the “legal climate” for business in the states. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sends survey results the nation’s news media outlets, large and small, claiming that the survey shows that businesses in that state are hurt by personal injury lawsuits.
The data in these news releases are accepted by many newspaper editors without question. The editor might publish the results in a news story and throw in a pro-tort reform editorial to boot.
As I said, this has been going on for years. But here’s the catch — the survey isn’t what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it is.
The USCC presents its survey as an impartial sampling of businesses and their attorneys. In fine print on the USCC website, it admits the survey respondents were all senior executives and attorneys from companies with at least $100 million in annual revenues.”Main Street” small business owners were not included.
The Chamber’s methodology has also been criticized. In 2009 Theodore Eisenberg of Cornell Law School issued a study that called the State Liability Systems Survey “Inaccurate, Unfair, and Bad for Business.” Among other things, Professor Eisenberg wrote, the survey misrepresents what is actually in state laws. This means in some cases the people taking the survey are reacting to legal provisions that don’t even exist. Although the questions are state-specific, the respondents are from all over the United States and may know little about the states being surveyed.
Rankings of states is oddly inconsistent and seems to rely more on the respondents’ impressions and biases than on objective knowledge. Professor Eisenberg suspects some respondents are confused about the difference between rates and absolute numbers. He also thinks the low rating of Gulf Coast states stems from their association with tobacco and asbestos litigation of years ago, not what is happening in those states today. This is more evidence that the people taking the survey don’t really know that much about tort activity in many states.
Organizations such as the Chamber and the American Tort Reform Association crank out many studies and documents that are distributed to news media, and much of the data in these studies gets into news stories. Unfortunately, many of these “studies” are riddled with bias and misinformation. The real purpose of the “studies” is not to provide information but to swing public opinion in favor of “tort reform.”