Trial lawyers and lawsuits -- research shows public doesn't get the whole truth

September 27, 2004

Clashes over an "explosion" of lawsuits and "massive" jury awards may well play a role in next Tuesday's vice presidential debate involving a famous former trial lawyer, John Edwards.

But what the public usually hears about lawyers and lawsuits is distorted, according to a pair of researchers who analyzed two decades of press coverage in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and three other national newspapers. They found that oversimplified anecdotes spun into easy-to-swallow morality tales routinely eclipsed actual litigation.

"We call these 'tort tales' or 'pop torts,' " said Michael McCann, a UW political science professor who with the University of Puget Sound's William Haltom spent five years researching how rarities like the $2.9 million award to a McDonald's coffee-spill victim come to be portrayed as commonplace examples of a legal system run amok.

In their new book, "Distorting the Law: Politics, Media and the Litigation Crisis," McCann and Haltom document how: To understand how the picture got so distorted, McCann and Haltom dissected coverage of the 1994 McDonald's coffee case and discovered that almost every newspaper story omitted key pieces of evidence that made the initial $2.9 million award sensible to jurors, most of whom had entered the trial with huge reservations about the woman's claim.

Left out of most news accounts was the scientific evidence regarding the rate at which hot liquid burns through human tissue, the severity of the third-degree burns the woman suffered over 6 percent her body, the fact that McDonald's had ignored some 700 previous complaints about the danger of serving coffee nearly 45 degrees hotter than normal home brew, and the core legal principles at stake in the case.

Also, many reports failed to mention that the damage award was reduced by the judge to less than $700,000.

Other erroneous "facts" got added over time. For example, the majority of articles implied that the woman had opened her coffee cup while driving; in fact, she was a passenger in a car that was parked. Even after The Wall Street Journal published an investigative piece establishing some of the facts that jurors had learned, faulty initial news reports continued to be propagated.

"Jurors decided the case on the facts that they heard," Haltom said, "but most Americans never hear those facts."

In interviewing more than two dozen journalists, the researchers found that reporters usually don't have time to attend trials or have access to trial records, and often have to base their stories on pre- and post-trial interviews with litigants. This often replaces information available in the courtroom with spin and propaganda.

As the McDonald's coffee story made its way into op-ed commentaries and then pop culture (hence, "pop torts"), even more misleading renditions became fodder for comedians lampooning the woman's supposed opportunism and the death of personal responsibility.

How do such distortions occur? Drawing on their own National Science Foundation-funded research as well as compiling dozens of existing studies, McCann and Haltom found among the causes: The overall result, the researchers found, is that press coverage of lawsuits often varies little from the simplified "tort tale" ads created by politicians and interest groups.

"Many scholars have studied this and come to the same conclusion," McCann said. "The problem is that they rarely communicate to reporters as routinely and effectively as do those on the other side."

McCann and Haltom did not deny that the U.S. civil justice system might benefit from well-selected reforms, but they concluded that the anecdotal information available to the public provides an insufficient basis on which to render judgments about either individual cases or larger trends in law.

What typically passes as "common sense" about the litigation crisis, they found, is as fanciful as it is familiar.
For more information, contact McCann at 206-543-2396 or, or Haltom at 253-879-3445 or, or click on

University of Washington

Related Coffee Articles from Brightsurf:

Drink coffee after breakfast, not before, for better metabolic control
The new study looked at the combined effects of disrupted sleep and caffeine on our metabolism - with surprising results.

Even in people with Parkinson's gene, coffee may be protective
Even for people with a gene mutation tied to Parkinson's disease, coffee consumption may be associated with a lower risk of actually developing the disease, according to a new study published in the September 30, 2020, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

A coffee and catnap keep you sharp on the nightshift
A simple coffee and a quick catnap could be the cure for staying alert on the nightshift as new research from the University of South Australia shows that this unlikely combination can improve attention and reduce sleep inertia.

Latest findings on bitter substances in coffee
Coffee is very popular around the world despite or perhaps because of its bitter taste.

Coffee linked to lower body fat in women
Women who drink two or three cups of coffee a day have been found to have lower total body and abdominal fat than those who drink less, according to a new study published in The Journal of Nutrition.

How to make the healthiest coffee during COVID-19 lockdown
We may all be drinking more coffee to help us survive the COVID-19 lockdown.

Coffee changes our sense of taste
Sweet food is even sweeter when you drink coffee. This is shown by the result of research from Aarhus University.

'Whiskey webs' are the new 'coffee ring effect'
Spilled coffee forms a ring as the liquid evaporates, depositing solids along the edge of the puddle.

Is your coffee contributing to malaria risk?
Researchers at the University of Sydney and University of São Paulo, Brazil, estimate 20% of the malaria risk in deforestation hot spots is driven by the international trade of exports including: coffee, timber, soybean, cocoa, wood products, palm oil, tobacco, beef and cotton.

The complex biology behind your love (or hatred) of coffee
Why do some people feel like they need three cups of coffee just to get through the day when others are happy with only one?

Read More: Coffee News and Coffee Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to