Public Perceptions About Personal Injury Lawsuits

Pam: Another thing you mentioned is that people don't realize the environment we're in. What did you mean by that?

Barry: Well, when cases go to trial, the decisions are made by juries. Juries are made up of the public at large. So, juries have to a large extent been conditioned by a long standing well funded public relations campaign that really casts aspersions and skepticism on people who are making claims.

I can't tell you the number of times I've had people call my office after an accident and tell me, "I'm not the suing type, I'm not sue happy." This is really the language of that PR campaign that is infecting the public at large. And when you have people in the jury who are exposed to that, and everyone is to a greater or lesser extent, the jury tends to look at people who are involved in a lawsuit as being sue happy, eager to go to court, and that kind of thing, when it really is the furthest thing from the truth.

Pam: So, where do you see this in action?

Barry: You know, a really easy place to see this is in online stories in the news about a large verdict, or a large settlement. And you scroll down and you look at the comments that follow, and it's really dispiriting in some ways to look at them and see how mean spirited some of these comments can be. And some of it you can say well, those are just internet tough guys, and keyboard warriors, and that kind of thing. But there's something that's sitting in somebody's psyche in terms of their belief system that leads them to type those things out. And those are people who one day may end up sitting in a jury.

It's really fascinating to see that. And you also see that when you see stories in the news about horrible accidents. Oh, some lawyer is going to jump all over this, it's going to be a giant payday for a lawyer, or what have you. Past that, when you actually go to court, I've probably tried close to 50 jury trials now. And when you go to do jury selection, you hear the term frivolous lawsuit all the time, over and over and over again. And the funny thing about it is everybody uses that same phrase, and it's always used to describe somebody else's lawsuit.

I could be standing there in the well of a court room wearing a Homer Simpson Christmas tie, which would be a frivolous tie to wear, and nobody would think of using that word to describe my tie. But people use it all the time to describe somebody else's lawsuit.

To give you another example, when you try to pick juries these days, you still hear people talking about the McDonald's hot coffee case where the lady spilled the hot coffee in her lap and got the terrible burns. People still angry about that, still get upset about it, even when they're probably too young to remember when it actually happened.

So, when you see that kind of language being used, you see the McDonald's case being brought out again and again, it really is the product of years and years of public relations campaigns that are really funded by industry groups, by the insurance industry at large.

Just to give you a quick example of how deeply rooted this is in people's psyche, I was selecting a jury for a case which was actually going to trial, and there was a lady who was talking in a very angry way about frivolous lawsuits. And one of the things that she mentioned is that she felt like her sister was involved in a frivolous lawsuit, and she wasn't talking to her anymore because of it.

That's a real indication that this is a serious problem that people really need to be very concerned about. When you have people who have been involved in accidents and are trying to handle the case themselves, they don't really appreciate what a tough environment you're dealing with when it comes to the public at large. I'll give you another little statistic, that's kind of alarming from my perspective as being somebody who represents people who have been involved in serious accidents. There's a very significant number of people who actually identify the person who's being sued in a civil case as the victim in the lawsuit, as opposed to somebody who's been hit by a truck, or hurt in a construction accident, or had something really horrific happen to them. The person who's being sued is the victim, which is backwards.

Pam: So, the trucking company, or whatever?

Barry: Right, is considered the victim. And that's really the reverse of what's actually happened in the real world.

Pam: With that in mind, how does all of this impact someone who's been in an accident, and is going through the claims process?

Barry: People don't realize what a tough, tough environment they're in with jurors that are naturally skeptical about the kinds of claims that are being made after an accident. And you have an insurance company that's doing everything it can to build a case that sort of fuels that underlying skepticism. People are actually in a much, much tougher fight than they might ever realize.

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