Trial Lawyers: Polls good for billion-dollar verdicts, bad for ranking legal fairness

Allen Adomite May 4, 2008, 7:00am


The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform released its seventh-annual Harris Poll surveying senior attorneys at America's largest companies. Illinois ranked 46th overall, putting our state in the Top Five of worst legal climates. West Virginia ranked last and Delaware first, in case anyone is keeping track.

It's always interesting to read the annual rebuttal release of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the organization now known as the American Association for Justice. The nation's organization of personal injury lawyers called the rankings "phony," labeled the study as "junk," and questioned whether the results were "statistically valid."

Forget the fact the Chamber surveyed nearly a thousand attorneys. Forget the fact they poll was administered by Harris Interactive, the creators of the Harris Poll, which is "one of the longest running, most respected proprietary surveys" in the world.

According to the trial lawyers, such science isn't to be relied upon for ranking our fifty states for legal fairness.

But, looking back five years in Madison County, you will find some trial lawyers think polls are a great way to make plaintiffs, and their attorneys, some money, and we mean lots of money. Billions.

The case, Price v. Philip Morris, is legendary. Evidence was offered at trial in front of Madison County Judge Nicholas Byron. According to the judgment rendered by Judge Byron, Dr. J. Michael Dennis of Knowledge Networks conducted a "valuation study" through a "web-enabled probability sample of nationally representative survey respondents in the United States population."

Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman provides more detail:

For purposes of this case, 2,701 panel members were invited to participate in a survey on the basis of their being current or recent smokers. 1,779 of these responded to the on-line invitation by completing the "screening survey"; 276 of these "qualified for the main interview" based on their answers to three screening questions.

Using the answers to the survey questions, plaintiffs' attorneys and their experts calculated the "diminution in value" to the 1.14 million light cigarette smokers in the class, which equaled $7.1 billion. That evidence became the basis for Judge Byron's verdict of $7.1 billion in economic damages plus $3 billion in punitive damages, or $10.1 billion total.

Again, to recap the trial lawyer logic: Polls are great for calculating damages in large billion-dollar consumer fraud class action claims, but they're not appropriate for creating a ranking system for legal fairness.

The trial lawyers shouldn't get a free pass on such hypocrisy.

The good news, at least, is that an analysis of the seven years of data from the Harris polls shows an overall improvement in state legal climates, along with an improvement in Madison County.

However, as legislators meet in Springfield this May, fretting over declining state tax revenues, perhaps they should consider where our state fits into national picture when it comes to legal climate. For Illinois, there's not much further to fall.

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