Looking for the Sizzle, Not the Steak
A report in the San Antonio Express-News last week about a civil lawsuit caught our attention.
The 2018 lawsuit centered around the sexual assault of a minor and was only recently publicized in a string of billboards up and down the IH-35 corridor.
What makes this story unusual is not the unexplained delay in publication of the judgment, but the judgment itself—an unprecedented $1.25 billion, none of which has been (or ever will be) collected by the plaintiff.
It will never be collected, not only because the defendant cannot pay it, but because the law firm handling the case apparently never sought to collect a dime of the damages. In fact, according to the Express-News, the client was told the firm was “closing the case” after the client declined to participate in advertisements promoting the firm.
So, what leads a law firm to pursue a lawsuit if it doesn’t plan to enforce the judgment?
As we’ve discussed previously, many advertising personal injury trial lawyers exploit “social inflation”—or society’s collective devaluation of a dollar—in the promotion of their services. As the general public gets accustomed to seeing larger and larger verdicts (and eye-popping salaries for athletes, entertainers and others), their perceptions about money become skewed.
When these good citizens are then tapped to sit on a jury, they tend to believe a high-dollar verdict should be rendered in every case. In this way, run-of-the-mill car wreck cases begin to yield significant judgments and cases with serious injuries tend to yield astronomical judgments. In many cases, the judgments far exceed the amount a reasonable person would regard as necessary to make the plaintiff whole.
What makes this particular story more intriguing is that prior to a recent rule change by the State Bar of Texas, the attorney wouldn’t have been able to advertise the billion-dollar judgment in the same way. According to the article:
“Previously, the rules stated that an advertisement was deemed false or misleading if it contained any reference to past successes or results obtained — unless the amount involved was actually received by the client.
Attorneys also had to disclose their fees and litigation expenses when the gross amount of the award was part of an advertisement.
Those requirements were removed effective July 1. Lawyers no longer have to disclose the “net to client” in their advertisements. Nor must they disclose attorney fees or litigation expenses.”
So, while the billboard is technically correct—the court did award $1.25 billion in damages in this case—it is plainly misleading to suggest the lawsuit provided any financial benefit to the client. It was, in effect, a publicity stunt by the attorney. And even though the client refused to participate in the continuation of the attorney’s publicity stunt, the attorney didn’t care. He erected dozens of billboards to acclaim his own virtue and success, and attract more clients for his own financial gain.
For this and many other advertising personal injury trial lawyers, a billboard is worth a thousand words. And now they may freely advertise massive verdicts and judgments without specifying that their clients may not be any better off because of them.
Or, as one attorney put it, “The public goes for the sizzle as opposed to the steak sometimes.”