On his June 16, 2001, Fox News show, humbly titled Stossel Show, John Stossel mocked product warning labels, consumer advocates, personal injury lawyers and the civil justice system itself. View the show touting tort reform at your risk, as it is sure to raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
If you do click on the link in the paragraph above, keep in mind that most of what Stossel reports and editorializes here and pretty much everywhere else is, at most, half true. The media accountability nonprofit Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, dedicates two pages of its website to debunking claims made by Stossel. Links from FAIR’s list of untrue and harmful statements made by Stossel — which he claims to make because he "believe[s] that markets are magical and the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market." — point to junk science concerning the nutritive value and lack of safety for organic foods, the bizarre claim that workers need less protection of their health and lives in factories, and Stossel’s willingness to cherry-pick unattributed quotes to support his ideological viewpoint.
I’m no news watchdog, but even I have no problem poking so many holes in a Stossel article like "Parasitic Tort Lawyers" that the piece couldn’t hold a single truth any more than a colander can hold water.
Here are just three of the false-to-ludicrous arguments presented by Stossel, followed by the reality of the situation:
- "I started referring hurt consumers to lawyers. Imagine my shock when consumers called to say their lawyers took most of the money!" — Attorneys who represent people injured or killed by defective and dangerous products such as harmful prescription drugs, unsafe working conditions such as high concentrations of diesel fumes, and doctor’s mistakes such as misdiagnosing a fungal infection as a viral one and leaving a patient permanently disabled as a result of the error. Lawyers in such cases do take fees, but those payments for legal services are taken after a settlement or jury verdict in favor of the client is secured. With payment only coming on recovery, clients give personal injury ttorneys no upfont fees, allowing them to compete with massive corporations and teams of insurance lawyers on a level playing field.
- "Innovators dump potentially life-saving inventions. Companies that started work on a safer asbestos substitute, an AIDS vaccine and a Lyme disease vaccine gave up the research because any work in those areas risked stirring up the lawyers. The liability risk was too great." — Beyond providing absolutely no evidence of what those "innovations" were or that worked exactly as intended and showed in testing that they posed no significant risks to people (a constant concern with vaccines and medications), Stossel seems not to know or unwilling to acknowledge that personal injury attorneys are literally not allowed by law to file suits against companies until some evidence of injury or wrongful death is presented by a person with a valid claim of harm. And as for the "asbestos substitute," hundreds of such products exist. Insulators, brakes pads and fire retardants all still exist, they just aren’t made from asbestos in the United States.
- "[Doctors] do surgery on people who may not need it. That’s safer for the doctor, although it’s not safer for the patients." — This claim defies logic. More medical malpractice claims are brought for botched surgeries than for any other type of doctor’s error. Why would it make sense for surgeon’s to increase their exposure to torts if their intent was to reduce their potential liability? Stossel also misreads and misrepresents the study on which he bases this baseless claim. A few paragraphs before writing the quoted sentence, Stossel cites a Health Affairs analysis that determined all malpractice costs — insurance for health care practitioners, lawsuit settlements and verdicts, and so-called "defensive medicine" — totaled just more than 2 percent of the more than $3 trillion Americans spent on medical treatments in 2008. Stossel, as is his wont, misrepresents the analysis as not factoring in costs for allegedly unneeded tests and surgical procedures.
Stossel’s irresponsible reporting and disregard for facts has cost him and his employers money and diminished both parties’ reputations. For instance, in April 2011, ABC settled a defamation lawsuit with a Los Angles, California (CA)-based minister who Stossel misrepresented on 20/20 and Good Morning America as taking cash from congregants to support a lavish millionaire’s lifestyle. The portrayal was completely false, and the network published a retraction of the story along with an apology to the defamed preacher.
And then there’s this incident from Stossel’s personal past:
Stossel later retained the services of a personal injury attorney and sued the wrestler, David "Dr. D" Schultz and the World Wrestling Federation, for $2 million. The case ended with Schultz and the WWF paying Stossel $425,000 for really no injury at all, just a well-deserved comeuppance.
Why would Stossel consider a weak tort good for himself if he considers strong torts bad for everyone else. Charging Stossel with hypocrisy doesn’t quite cover the gap between what the man has said and what he has done. At the same time, I need to stop short of calling Stossel a liar interested only in drawing viewers and readers rather than reporting and commentating honestly. I don’t want him hiring one of my VA tort lawyer colleagues and suing me.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.