A few months ago, friend of the blog and legal writer Walter Olson tweeted a link to a blog post by Jim Romenesko, referencing generally “the stories newspapers missed by not having reporters read new court filings.” In his blog post, Romenesko profiled the efforts of an intrepid courthouse news reporter, Dave Tartre, who came across a particularly interesting priapism lawsuit brought against a automobile company. (Yes, you read that last part correctly.).
Walter’s tweet got us thinking about the nature of news coverage of legal pleadings, particularly plaintiffs’ initial complaints. Over the years, we’ve seen various news stories reporting on complaints and new lawsuits, and we have to say that news reporting on such things can sometimes be unsatisfactory. General publications typically recite the allegations of the complaint, quote the plaintiff’s lawyer, who is only happy to expound upon the legal theories and purported negligence of the defendant, and leave it at that. This is not always good. There are several reasons why this is the case, and we list some of them here today.
1. The complaint offers only side of the case, and it’s not always correct. Obviously, by its very nature, the complaint includes only the plaintiff’s bare bones account of an alleged injury and often times, there are mistakes, errors, and misstatements in that document. Usually, there are exaggerations to bolster the characterization of the claim, and there’s often boilerplate language, when taken out of context by the reporter, may sound unfairly suggestive or sinister. However, as we all know, during the course a lawsuit, plaintiffs learn new facts or abandon old legal theories based on previous mistakes or new impressions of certain old or recently discovered facts.
2. Typically, a news reporter cannot reach the defendant (or a defendant’s representative) in time to meet the relevant publishing deadline to report upon the filing of the complaint. Because the reporter only has a summons and complaint, he or she may not know how to contact the appropriate in-house counsel or claim agent at the defendant’s corporate headquarters. Even if they do know how to reach the appropriate person for comment, the defendant may be unaware of the new lawsuit. Even if they are aware, they may be unable to comment on brand new pending litigation which, most likely, is only just being investigated by the defendant. Typically, this inability to obtain a meaningful comment from a defendant’s representative results in the token paragraph included in such an article that the defendant either could not be reached or could not comment if reached. This omission does not stop the reporter from publishing the piece, and it grants some credibility to the allegations in the complaint which, as noted above, may be exaggerated, boilerplate, or even factually inaccurate under the circumstances.
3. Many times, the news report about the initial filing is never followed up with a subsequent article reporting on the results of the case. So, if the case is promptly dismissed, or if the defendant wins a motion for summary judgment, the news goes unreported. Perhaps in the most high profile of cases we learn such results, but you never see a subsequent article in which the plaintiff is called to task for fabricating certain facts in a deposition or the case being dismissed for other reasons.
This is not to say that one should not report on new filings. In fact, there could be great value of such coverage. Take a look at the coverage at Popehat on the recent Carrion v. Inman matter. Those suits and claims were dissected by lawyer bloggers who foresaw the potentially long litigious process which may result from the filing of a complaint.