Personal Injury Awards Out Of Control: Fact Or Fiction. New Study Shows Media Influence.

court houseLast week I was in court in Oakland and observed the selection of a jury in a personal injury case, which involved an auto accident. The lawyers in the case asked the jurors their thoughts about the amount of verdicts in personal injury cases. Almost without exception, each prospective juror replied that they felt jury verdicts were excessive and often out of proportion to what they should be. Many of the jurors cited the famous McDonald’s case as an example of what they meant.

As an Alameda personal injury attorney, I am often talking to juries. My experience in questioning jurors whether it’s an automobile case or any other personal injury claim is similar to what I heard in that courtroom. Unfortunately, jurors ‘ beliefs about the size of jury verdicts does not match the reality of the awards actually rendered by juries. A recent study by the Center for Justice and Democracy entitled “White Paper: Headline Blues: Civil Justice in the Age of New Media” shows how the media influences the public’s misperception about the size of jury verdicts in personal injury cases. It makes several points to show why and how this is happening.

How many times have you seen headlines such as “Woman wins 3.5 million dollars for personal injury claim.” It makes it sound like she won the lottery. Often the reality in such cases is that there were very serious and permanent injuries involved, such as brain damage or paralysis, and egregious conduct by the defendant. The study showed that in 39 percent of the articles studied, there was no analysis of the defendant’s misconduct, and in 14.5% of the articles there was no description of the type of injury.

Consider the following important points also brought out in this study. In analyzing numerous media articles, the average jury verdict reported was $4,600,000.00. However, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice numbers, the median jury verdict for a winning plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit is just $24,000.00. In other words, the reported verdicts by the media are 192 times higher than what the typical plaintiff recovers in a personal injury lawsuit. No wonder people think that people are gaming the system and that the tort laws need to be reformed.

Sound bites, headlines, tweets, and other bite size pieces of media coverage are distorting what is actually happening in the courtroom. Not surprisingly, people who are sitting on juries in these types of case are skeptical of persons making such claims. Unfortunately for individuals who have suffered serious personal injuries, juries are prejudiced against them before they even walk into the courtroom because the prospective jurors have been saturated with misinformation about what is really happening in our jury system.

As personal injuries lawyers, we must do our part as well. When we obtain significant results for our clients, which also benefit our communities, we should strive to make sure that the cases are reported on in a dignified and accurate manner. The reporting should truly reflect the nature of the case including the seriousness of the client’s injuries and the conduct of the defendant that caused such injuries. In this way, juries can come to their job with a sense of duty to the community to see that justice is done in each case instead of a sense of cynicism.


White Paper: Headline Blues: Civil Justice in the Age of New Media,
Center for Justice and Democracy, October 2011

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