Headlines don't tell full story on big jury awards

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.

In the last week alone, the Free Press reported that:

  • An Oakland County jury awarded $130 million to the quadriplegic plaintiff in a birth trauma lawsuit against Beaumont Hospital, one of whose doctors was accused of botching the delivery.
  • Detroit Public Schools authorized a $650,000 payout to settle wrongful discharge and whistle-blower claims brought by a former superintendent.
  • Jeffrey Moldovan, who sued Warren and its police department after spending 12 years in prison for a rape in which he was later exonerated, collected a $2.8-million settlement from the city.
  • Two Detroit police officers who once were attached to former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's executive protection team sued a former colleague whose testimony placed them at the funeral of slain stripper Tamara Greene, adding a new subplot to the already labyrinthine litigation arising from Greene's death.

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.

Bear Market For Barristers

Michael Behm, a Flint lawyer who serves as president of the Michigan Association for Justice (formerly known as the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association), said the real state of tort law is described by the steady decrease in the number of suits filed and the contraction of the plaintiff's bar.

"Medical malpractice filings are down 85%, and the only lawyers who handle such cases anymore are specialists who do nothing else," says Behm, citing legislative caps on damages and new pretrial obstacles as factors that make it more expensive for injured plaintiffs to sue and harder for them to prevail. According to the Justice Department, plaintiffs win only 51% of the time when their claims go to a jury -- although the Center for Justice and Democracy says judgments receive media coverage about six times as often when the plaintiff wins.

On the bright side, with civil filings of almost every variety on the wane, it's increasingly difficult for demagogues on the right to finger frivolous litigation as a major drag on the economy. Despite the headlines, it turns out, the deep pockets are more than holding their own.

Contact Brian Dickerson: 313-222-6584 or [email protected]