- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008


Last month, a report from the New York-based Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) documented a significant risk to Americans’ health posed by the inherently misleading Web sites of personal-injury lawyers looking to recruit new clients for medical-liability lawsuits.

Just last week, despite a written protest from the American Academy of Pediatrics, ABC Studios posed a comparable risk with the premier of its new television series, “Eli Stone.” The series’ storyline includes a lawsuit alleging a link between autism and childhood vaccines. Never mind that a growing body of medical research and most public-health organizations insist that no such link exists. The pediatricians’ letter to ABC cited the deaths of several children in Great Britain during the country’s worst outbreak of measles in two decades after a series of television reports began erroneously linking the measles vaccine to autism in 1998.

But so long as good drama makes good ratings, who cares if parents might be convinced that getting their kids vaccinated against dangerous diseases is a bad idea? Television critic Tom Shales of The Washington Post offered additional insight into the mindset of the “Eli Stone” producers when he wrote, “It’s not at all encouraging that a future episode deals, like the pilot, with a negligent corporation, this one manufacturing poisonous pesticide.

What’s this going to be, Bad Company of the Week? That could get tired quickly… ” With all due respect, Tom, Hollywood’s reality-ignoring glorification of tort lawyers and their liability-expanding agenda has been tired for a long time. Because for every noble, heartstring-pulling Erin Brockovich fantasy, there are countless real-life personal-injury lawyers who erode public confidence in our civil justice system, undermine America’s economic competitiveness and contribute to health care inflation with frequently meritless lawsuits.

This brings us back to those phony Web sites. The CMPI report shows that many Americans are routinely misled when conducting Internet searches about illnesses or medical conditions from which they or loved ones suffer. Internet search results, the report says, are “dominated by Web sites paid for and sponsored by either class action law firms or legal marketing sites searching for plaintiff referrals.”

Robert Goldberg, CMPI vice president and coauthor of the report, said, “What we found was not only disturbing, but dangerous to public health.” Millions of Americans now resort to Google searches more readily than consultations with the family physician, he explained. “People trust, and make decisions, based on information they find online.” But with few exceptions, Mr. Goldberg added, the information that he and colleagues found online “had no medical authority whatsoever.

“In many cases, we found lawyers posing as medical experts,” according to Mr. Goldberg. In fact, the tort lawyers’ masquerading Web sites are shamelessly designed to gin up clients for speculative litigation. Rather than providing unbiased, scientifically sound information, these sites give unknowing viewers skewed, misleading information that hypes risks, ignores benefits and can actually frighten people away from life-saving drugs or treatments.

Typically, such Web sites lead visitors to a page that ominously suggests, “If you’ve taken Drug X, you may be at considerable risk for Side Effect Y, and you may have grounds for a lawsuit.” Among other troubling case studies, CMPI’s report details how baseless allegations linking certain antidepressants to increased risks of suicide in young people appear to have taken a heartbreaking toll. Negative coverage online and in traditional media resulted in “a sharp decrease in antidepressant prescriptions” as families resisted such prescriptions, and, fearing litigation, doctors stopped writing them.

“At the same time,” the report tellingly observes, “there was an increase in depression and suicide.” Another egregious example of particularly vulnerable patients being put at risk can be found in a June 2007 Associated Press report. More than half of 402 randomly surveyed psychiatrists who treat patients with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia indicated that some of those patients stopped taking the drug or reduced their dosage upon seeing lawyers’ advertisements. Hollywood is Hollywood, and its creative “artists” aren’t likely to be convinced to portray tort lawyers more realistically — even if some kids won’t get their shots. But, remarkably, Kathleen Flynn Patterson, president of the tort bar’s national association, has maligned CMPI’s research and indicated her group’s unwillingness to dissuade lawyers from using dangerous, inherently misleading Web sites.

That leaves the job of regulation to state bar associations. Minimally, all lawyers should be required to identify themselves clearly and conspicuously on Web sites which they sponsor. And since public health and lives are at stake, Congress should commence appropriate oversight, too.

Darren McKinney directs communications for the American Tort Reform Association.

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