June 28th, 2011

Personal Injury Attorneys – Our Own Worst Enemy

A confluence of a couple different thing brings about today’s guest blog by H. Q. Nguyen. First, there was the terrific presentation by Brian Tannebaum down in Florida about online marketing and ethics. His talk runs 50 minutes and is time well spent, not only because you get to see a blogging lawyer in action doing what he does best — trying to pursuade a group of people by marshaling the evidence — but because his talk just might save one or two sad souls from selling themselves off to a demon marketer.

And second was the premier on HBO of Hot Coffee, which addresses many of the perceptions of the citizenry regarding our profession, and how it is that those perceptions were formed.

Nguyen brings home a point that should be evident to all of us concerning the damage some lawyers do with crappy marketing…


I’m a personal injury attorney and proud to serve those who’s lives have been damaged due to negligence. Due to those in the profession, people are able to seek just compensation for their losses from those that caused it.

Yet the public perception of the typical PI attorney is that of a greedy, cheesy ambulance chaser who does nothing more than bring frivolous lawsuits causing their insurance premiums to rise as well as hindering societal progress. How can this be?

We can put part of the blame on the insurance companies who spend an enormous amount of money on tort “reform” and marketing in order to influence the public (and the jury pools).

But let’s start with a look in the mirror first. If we want the public to see who we really are, we need to first change the way we present ourselves.

For example, everyday, millions of New Yorkers ride the New York City subways on their way to and from work or wherever they are going. When the typical Joe looks up in the subway car, he sees advertisement from PI firms. Instead of the content conveying that the firm helps those recover for harms caused by the negligence of others, all Joe sees is dollars, millions of dollars. What does that ad convey to a typical viewer who earns $35,000 -$50,000 a year? What does that ad convey to Joe, who may be on his way to serve as a juror?

While these ads may be effective in bringing in clients for the firm who pay for these ads, it harms the profession as a whole. Until we police ourselves and reign in these dollar-centric ads, we cannot hope to change the public’s perception of our profession. We are in essence our worst enemy.


June 27th, 2011

Hot Coffee Tonight

Late last year I wrote about Hot Coffee, a documentary about the tort “reform” industry. The movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, included much about the McDonald’s hot coffee case where the late Stella Liebeck was scalded from the brew. I would tell you more about the case, except that you already know the story.

Or, perhaps, you only think you know about the story. Hot Coffee looks not only at that, but at why you think you know about the case and how the publicity campaign got you to form opinions. The move airs on HBO tonight. The trailer is here.

And this is the lede for a review by Hank Stuever from the Washington Post:

We get a lot wrong in our media-transfixed culture, where a wry quip and populist outrage almost always trump any understanding of complicated facts. But rarely do we get someone as wrong as we got Stella Liebeck.

Was the movie good? Steuver reaches this conclusion:

Unlike so many documentaries these days, “Hot Coffee” is refreshingly unadorned or manipulated for artistic or tear-jerking effect. It winnows down complicated legal arguments and anecdotal cases with compassion and clarity. It does everything a documentary can do — which, in terms of effecting change, isn’t much. But if nothing else, it has at least given Stella Liebeck what McDonald’s and Jay Leno did not: understanding.

So if you have HBO, it seems like this is something you might want to tune in to. Especially if you are on the other side of the aisle from where I usually stand. Because it isn’t just about coffee.

Other reviews of the film after it debuted at Sundance can be read here.


December 1st, 2010

Hot Coffee Goes Sundancing

Everyone has heard about the McDonald’s hot coffee case where Stella Liebeck was scalded with third degree burns. And almost everyone has an opinion. Every so often, someone knows the actual details. Most though, just know that some lady spilled hot coffee on herself and sued McDonalds for millions. A Google search for hot coffee Stella Liebeck turns up over 11,000 hits, and hot coffee lawsuit turns up 60 million.

Now a movie has been made called, appropriately enough, Hot Coffee. And this movie explains why you know about this suit, why it’s part of the discussion over the civil justice system, and how it was used (and misused) for propaganda purposes. This is the blurb from the Hot Coffee site (which also has a trailer for the film):

Seinfeld mocked it. Letterman ranked it in his top ten list. And more than fifteen years later, its infamy continues. Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end. After seeing this documentary film, you will decide who really profited from spilling hot coffee.

Why write about this now? Because the documentary was selected today to play at the Sundance Film Festival. The festival picked just 16 films out of 861 submissions.

The Sundance site had this blurb on the film:

(Director: Susan Saladoff) Following subjects whose lives have been devastated by an inability to access the courts, this film shows that many long-held beliefs about our civil justice system have been paid for by corporate America.

The incident occurred in 1992, 18 years ago, and this one case still fuels debate. Why? It may because there are continuing attempts by the corporate world to gain immunity for negligent acts by calling it tort “reform.” And the way the argument is made is by looking for outlier suits, and trying to use those outliers as a means of changing the system as a whole. (Whether the McDonald’s case is an outlier will depend on your own viewpoint after reading the facts, but that is how “reform” politics fundamentally  works.)

The debate rages on.