America Online (AOL) is running an article titled “Most Outrageous Lawsuits.” It appears in the money and finance section of AOL and was also prominently displayed on the AOL home page. As a frequent user of AOL (I really love their product) for the last 11 years, I keep seeing this article over and over.
The “crazy lawsuits” AOL describes come directly from groups like Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), groups who see personal injury lawyers as the great Satan whose sole mission is to destroy corporate America while lining our pockets with millions of dollars.
These groups rely on a false premise: that the American public cannot be trusted and American juries give out ridiculous awards that unsubstantiated by the evidence or even common sense. The groups that vilify personal injury lawyers are entitled to their opinion and they are not wrong that frivolous lawsuits sometimes get filed. What it does not entitle them to is their own facts. But they often make up their own facts, manufacturing insane lawsuits and verdicts that never happened.
Stores of million-dollar recoveries in cases that never happened fuel this frustration against personal injury lawyers. My favorite is the auto accident that resulted from the man who assumed his Winnebago would drive itself on cruise control, left his seat and went to make a cup of coffee, and then sued and recovered millions because he was not warned that cruise control did not mean the vehicle would drive itself. The more powerful examples are the ones at least based on a true story like the McDonald’s coffee case, which has been so distorted by groups attacking personal injury lawyers – and by implication the American public – that the facts have been long lost. Click here for the actual facts of the McDonald’s case instead of the half story – actually 1/10 story – that gets told repeatedly.
AOL may itself have reason to detest trial lawyers. In the past few years, trial lawyers have been the last resort for shareholders and investors to hold AOL accountable for their negligence. The following are just a few examples of AOL’s legal problems:
Just this week AOL agreed to pay $246 million to compensate the University of California for losses to their pension and endowment funds after the company’s stock prices plunged in 2001-2002. The University alleged that AOL inflated it stock price prior to its merger with Time-Warner by misrepresenting its sales, revenues and subscriber numbers (I lost money on their stock as well but I got it mostly after the stock had plummeted).
On February 26, 2007, Time Warner reached agreements to pay $405 million to settle lawsuits related to past accounting problems at AOL.
On February 7, 2007, AOL reached a $105 million settlement with the California State Teachers’ Retirement System that claimed that AOL executives and bankers had artificially boosted the value of its stocks prior to buying Time Warner.
In December 2006, AOL settled a securities fraud case for $50 million with the state of Alaska.
In September 2006, AOL members joined in a class action suing AOL for violating their privacy by posting their search queries online. AOL made public the search queries of over 600,000 members.
In January 2006, AOL settled a class action for $25 million after customers accused the company of wrongfully billing them.
In 2005, Time Warner settled a $2.4 billion securities fraud lawsuit stemming from their misstatement of advertising revenue on the eve of its merger with AOL.
In 2004, AOL settled two class actions that claimed it had continued to bill plaintiffs after they canceled their subscriptions.
I’m not saying this is why AOL is running the story. I really do not know. They may be just feeding into the frenzy attacking personal injury lawyers and tapping into the impulse that many of us have to think the American public – or anyone not in the room when we are speaking – is so dumb. But I wish AOL would ignore its own ulterior motives or the desire to tap into the anti-personal injury lawyer sentiment and present these stories with a little more journalistic objectivity. Otherwise, they should just merge with Fox News.