Newspaper Coverage of Automotive Product Liability Verdicts

Article excerpt

Media coverage of litigation may affect perceptions and thereby behavior of litigants, judges,, juries, legislators and business decisionmakers. Their behavior influences various legal, social, political and economic outcomes. For product liability verdicts during 1983 to 1996 involving automobile manufacturers, we examine the amount of coverage in several dozen newspapers. We find almost no articles reporting on any of 259 verdicts for the defendant. Econometric analysis focuses on determinants of the amount of coverage of 92 verdicts for plaintiffs, 16 of which include punitive damages. Key determinants include the award amount, the nature of injuries, the vehicle's recall history, and especially the existence of a punitive component of damages regardless of its size.

Beliefs about the outcomes of tort litigation-by citizens, attorneys, judges, juries, legislators and business decisionmakers-may have wide-ranging effects. This article analyzes econometrically a potentially important element in the formation of these beliefs: newspaper coverage. We analyze factors that contribute to the extent or amount of coverage in dozens of newspapers, but do not analyze or interpret the content of articles.

Beliefs about the world of tort litigation can affect a diverse array of decisions and thereby affect legal, social, political and economic outcomes. The claiming behavior of injured individuals is likely to depend on their beliefs about the likelihood of prevailing in a lawsuit and the likely magnitudes of damage awards. Attorneys are likely to choose specialties-for example, whether to focus on personal-injury cases, and if so, what typeson the basis of their beliefs about the frequency and magnitudes of damages. The behavior of judges and juries in individual trials may be affected, for example, by their beliefs about whether the tort system tends to advantage plaintiffs or defendants, whether there is "too much litigation," and even whether the system is "out of control." The ability of tort-reform advocates to influence legislation depends on the beliefs of legislators and voters about the nature of the tort system, and advocates' influence on appellate court decisions, for example, depends on the beliefs about the system by appellate judges. Finally, the economic effects of the tort system are determined in large measure by its effects on business decisions-in the case of product liability, for example, effects on decisions about the design, manufacture and labeling of products-and such decisions depend on the beliefs of business decisionmakers about incentives stemming from the tort system.

The beliefs about the tort system among members of these groups depend on the information they obtain and how they process this information.1 There is ample reason to suspect that mass media reporting of litigation events plays an important role in shaping the beliefs of members of the various groups. One reason is that comprehensive, systematic information about the world of tort litigation does not exist (see, e.g., Galanter et al. 1994). Another reason is that virtually all members of some groups-for example, citizens, potential claimants-and many members of the other groups are unlikely to be exposed to the systematic information that does exist. Many members of these groups are, however, exposed to mass media-including newspaper-reports about litigation and word of mouth generated by them. Thus newspaper coverage of litigation is likely to affect-- through beliefs of various groups-legal, social, political, and economic outcomes.

Moreover, newspaper coverage may affect business decisions-and economic outcomes of the tort system-through routes other than effects on decisionmakers' beliefs about the workings of the tort system. First, newspaper reporting of litigation can contribute to indirect effects of litigation that are costly to companies, such as responses by regulators or customers.2 If company decisionmakers perceive such potential costs, then prospects for newspaper coverage could affect their decisions. …

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