Scruggs won the public relations battle

When I read this post from Walter Olson at PointofLaw about a favorable profile of Dickie Scruggs in the New York Times, it made me think again about how Scruggs dominated and defined the arguments in Mississippi.  He has made millions in fees, and settled hundreds of cases for generous amounts, despite the fact that, I believe, he has yet to bring a Katrina case to trial against State Farm, and essentially lost the only case — Leonard v. Nationwide — he did bring to trial. 

What he did was play a big role in stirring up an incredibly hostile legal environment for State Farm, and while I don’t condone everything he has said and done, I have to admit that he played this whole thing much smarter than State Farm.  Scruggs realized a lawsuit isn’t really about the law, it’s about a story, and he not only came up with the better story to tell, one that was easily remembered and repeated, but he understood the first rule of getting good press: be available when the reporters call and have something interesting to say, even if it’s not for attribution.  Some, like Bob Woodward, will treat you like an old friend if you talk, and tear you to shreds if you don’t.  But, and I say this without malice because I did it all the time back in the day when I was a reporter, as for the rest of the media who aren’t like Woodward, you still have a tendency to treat folks a little kinder, a little more gently when they fill your needs, which consist of receiving information that helps you get good stories prominently published and keep your job. 

Scruggs, of course, had a natural advantage: he’s not an insurance company.  But couldn’t State Farm have come up with some figure of respect, a Bob Dole-like presence, who could serve as the face of the company and lay it on thick and straight, explaining how upholding contracts helps everyone in the long run, expressing sympathy for the victims and pointing to State Farm’s charitable works in Mississippi? (Were there any charitable works? If so, I’ve never heard of them).  And for those who are concerned about the implications of "trying a case in public," remember that pleadings filed in court are public documents.  What’s wrong with saying the same thing to reporters? 

By the way, here’s a link to the NYT story Walter wrote about.  Take a read and see what you think.

4 Comments

Filed under Industry Developments

4 Responses to Scruggs won the public relations battle

  1. Layne

    Re: Charitable works from State Farm.
    Not sure if the question was rhetorical or not, but State Farm made an initial donation of $1,000,000 to the Red Cross, and then informed associates it would match dollar-for-dollar their own contributions which totalled 2,600,000. In all this comes to around $6.2 million donated to the Red Cross for Hurricane response.

  2. It was partly rhetorical, but partly asking because I didn’t know. Thanks for that information, I could have looked it up, of course, but the point is how often do you hear about these good works by State Farm? I never have heard about them. When someone is following this stuff every day like me and that’s not a message that is beaten into my head, there’s a problem with State Farm’s public relations.

  3. Brian

    Or State Farm could have simply paid the wind claims it owed. State Farm and apologists such as you and the WSJ editorial board made this about Scruggs and Lott because you did not want to address the evidence of State Farm’s fraudulent practices. Many other lawyers did great work uncovering the evidence, but you guys want to focus on Scruggs so you can portray him as some populist stereotype to your elitist audience. The first slab trial with zero wind payment was destined to be a big win with punitive damages because State Farm ignored every legal precedent and claimed it did not have to prove that damage was caused by flooding in order to deny wind coverage. They cheated thousands of people who lost everything in an unprecedented disaster. Face the facts. People bought policies, paid their premiums for decades, then were cheated by a conspiracy of insurers, adjusters, and engineers. This is not about clever lawyers and media strategy. It is about the truth eventually coming out and justice prevailing.

  4. Me a State Farm apologist? Crikey! I’m no State Farm apologist. I sue insurance companies as often as defend them, if not more so. Also, audience, are you elitist? I didn’t think so. Lots of Katrina victims read this blog and I believe they generally feel I am fair to both sides. I don’t think State Farm ignored every legal precedent, while I have questioned their approach on occasion, lawyers always find fault with things other lawyers did, but find very little if any fault in what they do. I think they made some pretty good arguments, and they are appealing adverse rulings, so who will ultimately prevail on some of the legal questions is up in the air.
    I don’t find Scruggs to be a populist hero. I do find him to be an incredibly shrewd lawyer and operator. I don’t minimize what other policyholder lawyers have done, but if anyone thinks the Scruggs Katrina Group isn’t an impressive legal force they are denying reality. That doesn’t mean I agree with Scruggs or endorse him, I’m merely pointing out objective reality as I see it. I’m not interested in serving as a cheerleader for anyone, that’s what the Laker Girls are for and I can’t compete on their level.