The Record obligated to be fair and balanced

By The West Virginia Record | Dec 11, 2005

By Jeffrey T. Jones, president-elect
West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association

Some would say that The West Virginia Record is masquerading as a legitimate news source, depriving its readership of the truth because its perspective and its "reporting" are bought and paid for by the United States Chamber of Commerce and other billion-dollar corporate interests intent on advancing its agenda at the expense of the truth.

Take the "Judicial Hellhole" report repeatedly touted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lisa Rickard cited it again in her recent Record column.

The Chamber likes to present that study as a "fair and balanced" analysis of West Virginia's legal system. Yet, the Harris study surveys only corporate attorneys. Attorneys cannot participate unless they are employed as an in-house lawyer by a corporation that earns more than $100 million in annual profits.

It's funded by the U.S. Chamber and says exactly what the Chamber wants—that West Virginia's courts are out of control. As Mark Twain wrote, "Some people use statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost -- more for support than for illumination."

If you look at independent data compiled by a non-partisan source, you find a very different analysis of our legal system. According to a study by the National Center for State Courts, West Virginia ranked thirty-fifth among the states and the District of Columbia in the number of tort case filings in 2002 based on our population.

According to the study, 73,627 cases were filed in West Virginia in 2002. Based on our population, there were 4,086 cases filed per 100,000 residents. The rankings for surrounding states were: Maryland (2nd), Virginia (3rd), Ohio (14th), Kentucky (25th) and Pennsylvania (44th).

That same study showed that in West Virginia there was no growth in the number of cases filed from 2000 to 2002—one of only four states that showed zero-growth or a decline in filings. That information does not point to an out-of-control court system.

Much has been made—even in the new West Virginia Record—about the "outrageous" fees that Judge James Stuckey awarded to the plaintiffs' attorneys in a recent case against Daimler Chrysler, but The Record failed to mention that all legal costs could have been avoided if Chrysler had just spent $4,500 and covered the replacement part and service fee on the defective vehicle.

If Chrysler had dealt fairly with the consumer, there would have been no case. The Record's coverage noted that the defense attorney and his team worked more hours on the case than the plaintiffs' firm had.

Yet, where were the amounts paid for the defense counsel—money that Daimler Chrysler had to pay its attorneys whether it won the case or not? Those amounts are probably equal to the $143,000 Stuckey ordered be paid to the plaintiffs' lawyers, if not more than. Unfortunately, that information was excluded from the discussion.

If The West Virginia Record is going to be considered as a legitimate news source, it has a powerful and unquestionable responsibility to provide state residents with a balanced and accurate picture of our state's legal system.

That means not repeating the anti-consumer rhetoric of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its billion-dollar allies as "news."

That means reporting on abuses that occur on both sides of the aisle, including frivolous defenses filed by corporate interests.

That means informing consumers how changes to our laws may put West Virginia workers and consumers at the mercy of out-of-state corporations whose only interest is their own bottom lines.

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