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.