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The other day I was driving and listening to one of our “talk radio” stations, when the host read a story that got his station’s phones ringing. It was a tale of another horrible miscarriage of justice, of society gone crazy, of…well, of a class action lawsuit.

According to the yakker, the suit was brought against a manufacturer of refrigerators because the little light inside the fridge didn’t go off when the door closed. Just the type of silly lawsuit that was destroying American business, he said. And what kind of court would even allow such nonsense to be heard?

On and on he and his listeners went; I heard the terms “runaway juries” and “ambulance chasers” and “tort reform” as everyone weighed in about the silly lawsuit over little lights that don’t go off when the fridge door closes. Well, everyone except those people whose lives were affected by those little lights.

As it turns out, the real issue was the electrical glitch that kept the little lights on also created a fire hazard, and some of those refrigerators caught fire. Appliance fires are no small matter; the Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates major appliances cause more than 150,000 residential fires every year, and result in 3,670 injuries, 150 deaths, and $547 million in property damage. The suit was brought to force the refrigerator manufacturer to reimburse buyers for repairs related to the light, something they’d been unwilling to do on their own.

None of these facts were related by the radio host or his callers, but rather than blame him, I think the blame partially rests with us and our failure to explain to the public what’s behind our actions. When that happens we allow our work to be defined by those who would purposely distort it.

I have no part in the refrigerator light case, but the issues it raises are the same as ones I’ve faced throughout my career. This was especially true during my tenure as President of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (2009-2010), when we were fighting to reverse a state law that would cap medical malpractice awards.

According to the opposition, high insurance premiums and “jackpot justice” were causing doctors to “flee” the state. They flooded the media with stories and statistics to back up their claims, and the fact none were accurate didn’t seem to bother them or, unfortunately, the press.

Our strategy was two-fold. First, every time one of their false claims was printed we immediately countered with articles and letters containing hard facts. This gave us the last word on the subject, and never resulted in a comeback from the other side. Second, we also became proactive, aggressively pursuing airtime and op-ed space to present our arguments.

We knew were fighting against some pretty powerful interests, so our arguments were not presented as abstract issues of law, but rather as stories about those whose lives had been affected by medical negligence. While the opposition spoke of insurance premiums we told of a child whose life, and the lives of her family, were shattered by a negligent physician.

In the end, we prevailed, but the battle taught me to never be complacent or silent. I often enlist the press at the beginning of a case, and don’t wait to react to negative stories. A good example is one of my current cases involving a faulty medical device. We have been on local television and print media explaining the dangers of the device, and why we have brought suit against the manufacturer. We have, to use a phrase, “framed the argument” in our favor. It would be very difficult for anyone on the other side to gain any sympathy.

Which brings us back to the refrigerator lights. The story that should have been told was about the dangers of appliance fires, about the deaths, injuries, and property damage. Because that story was never told, a very serious problem was trivialized, and made the butt of a media outlet’s jokes.

My advice to all is to take control of your story. Frame it the way you want to see it presented to the public, and be relentless in getting it out to the press. Do that and you’ll never have to worry what’s being said by some guy on the AM dial.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for William Eadie

    Pete, great article, great message, great result in blocking tort deform. Wish we had been able to do the same here in Ohio, where tort deform (or what I like to call "malpractice entitlements") is making it hard to seek redress from people through the civil justice system.

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