Northern California Record

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Legal advertising and geofencing may be skewing jury pools and damaging public perception

Attorneys & Judges

By Rich Peters | Nov 13, 2019

Phone 1280

SACRAMENTO – There's a growing concern among experts regarding the impact of lawyer-sponsored advertisements on jury pools, verdicts, and public health.

Today’s technology and 24-hour news cycle have given the public both unlimited access and exposure to media coverage. As corporations like Monsanto, Bayer, DuPont and Johnson & Johnson are battling a massive number of lawsuits from thousands of plaintiffs, news coverage and legal advertising aimed at other potential plaintiffs run rampant across the internet, social media, television and radio.

For instance, geofencing, a new, efficient wave of online advertising, has given lawyers a way to maximize their ad budgets by bidding not only on the correct converting keywords, but also by bidding on the ideal targeted locations. For lawyers, the ability to target potential clients in a very specific geographic area is more important than ever because of the financial possibilities in winning these high-profile cases. Local attorneys can and have become more efficient than ever in their marketing – but how have these targeted ads affected public opinion and those who may become a part of the jury selection?

California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Regional Director Maryann Marino | Photo courtesy of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

“Many plaintiffs’ attorneys have turned to TV and social media advertising as a tactic to solicit potential victims for large and costly lawsuits,” said Kyla Christoffersen Powell, president and CEO of the Civil Justice Association of California. “As this trend progresses, we see these advertisements becoming more aggressive and greatly exaggerating the facts.”

The Monsanto/Bayer Roundup cases that have played out in trial in the Bay Area have seen this advertising tactic first-hand from both sides. Of three that have already taken place, out of thousands of suits in which plaintiffs have alleged that the weed killer played a substantial factor in causing their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, advertising has been a talking point both in and out of the courtroom.

For years, Northern California has been slammed by TV ads offering legal advice to Roundup users, with one ad stating that “Roundup weed killer has been designated as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization,” telling viewers how to “fight for the compensation that you deserve.”

On the other hand, Monsanto, which has maintained that its product is safe despite losing more than $2 billion in three initial verdicts, also is trying to get its message through by way of advertising.

In March, during jury deliberations in the case of Edwin Hardeman v. Monsanto in San Francisco, numerous reports of geofencing were reported throughout the region. Google searches were topped with glyphosate-safety ads, with one particular article entitled "Weeding Wisely" that directly linked to post on Bayer’s own website.

There was also discussion of the lack of coincidence in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) April announcement that there are “no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label” and that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen.”

This statement from the EPA came during the crucial closing days of Alva and Alberta Pilliod’s trial against Monsanto in Oakland in which the Bay Area couple was initially awarded more than $2 billion before damages were later reduced. The couple’s attorney, Brent Wisner, openly questioned the timing and motive of the EPA announcement.

However, one legal expert says California is not alone in these advertising tactics.

“Back in 2017, St. Louis, Missouri was named a top Judicial Hellhole, a place where judges apply laws and court procedures in an unfair way, usually against the defendant,” said Maryann Marino, regional director of the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

“St. Louis saw a wave of television advertisements that inundated the city’s residents and tainted the jury pool for lawsuits involving talcum powder cases (against Johnson and Johnson). The cases asserted that talcum powder cause ovarian cancer," she said. “Because the local trial court had three gigantic verdicts totaling $197 million, one may draw the conclusion that these ads were successful in influencing the jury pool and making it unfair for the defendant.”

But beyond tainted jury pools and skewed verdicts, some experts and leaders believe that reform is also needed due to the potential dangers that these advertisements pose to individuals who may never even be directly involved in a case themselves but rather believe whatever they see on their TVs and smartphones.

“This has had dangerous consequences for some patients who stopped using medically-necessary prescriptions in response,” said Christoffersen Powell. “Increased regulation and meaningful oversight is needed to ensure these ads don’t lead to misguided and life-threatening medical decisions.”

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Organizations in this Story

Civil Justice Association of CaliforniaCalifornia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

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