Opinion: Often misleading and sometimes dangerous, lawyer ads should be regulated
It is impossible to avoid them. Everywhere we look, we are bombarded by aggressive legal advertising. From car wrecks to class actions, solicitations from personal injury law firms dominate our local TV airwaves — not to mention what fills the radio and is plastered on billboards and bus exteriors.=
For the small number of folks in Louisiana who may not have noticed, these ads often feature loud-talking lawyers and paid testimonials from their clients about how much money they made off of their lawsuits. In a typical ad that makes our state courts sound more like a lawsuit lottery than a legitimate legal system, one plaintiff boasts, “I called for free and he got me $358,000.” Is it any wonder why Louisiana drivers pay some of the highest auto insurance rates in the country?
But lawyer ads are not just annoying and expensive. Sometimes they can be dangerous.
Even more troubling than traditional “crash cash” commercials is a new trend in legal advertising that could actually be hurting people. Some personal injury lawyers are now using unregulated legal advertisements to make unsubstantiated and unbalanced claims about life-saving pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices for the sole purpose of scaring potential plaintiffs into mass tort litigation.
In fact, if you have watched daytime television lately, you’ve probably seen one of these ads. In these dramatic commercials, personal injury lawyers offer dire warnings about extremely rare and ominous-sounding side effects that may be associated with a wide range of medical treatments. It seems, no drug or medical device is safe from these scare tactics, with a slew of sensational legal ads targeting everything from life-saving defibrillators to cancer-killing chemotherapies to breakthrough medicines for treating diabetes.
The sheer volume of these commercials is shocking. In 2015, lawyers spent almost $900 million on television ads across the country, and market research analysts estimate trial lawyers’ TV advertising grew six times faster than all other advertising over the six-year period ending in 2016.
These seemingly health-related commercials generally do not offer sound medical advice, and most often they do not feature licensed medical professionals. Yet the melodramatic and “official” tone of these legal advertisements serves to invoke fear and emotional paralysis in some patients. Whether intentional or not, the content and proliferation of these ads can even discourage some patients from taking their medications correctly or following a doctor’s recommendations. These are unfortunate and potentially dangerous side effects indeed.
In an effort to better protect the public’s health, the American Medical Association adopted a policy at its annual meeting last year to advocate for a new requirement for attorney commercials to include “appropriate” and “conspicuous” warnings so they do not cause patients to stop using necessary medications.
This is a step in the right direction, but many cannot afford to wait for movement at the federal level. The Louisiana Legislature should consider steps to hold personal injury lawyers accountable now. As is the case with all other advertisers, the lawsuit industry should be required to ensure that the content of their advertising is truthful, accurate and responsible.
Melissa Landry is executive director of the non-partisan, grassroots legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch. For more information about LLAW’s efforts to restore common sense and fairness to Louisiana’s civil justice system, visit www.LLAW.org.