In law school, the correct answer to in-class queries was frequently “it depends.” In law, often there is no black or white, right or wrong – it all depends on the facts and the analysis of the law. This dynamic also applies to media coverage of lawsuits.
Lawsuits are filed in every court in every state every day. No two lawsuits are created equal, and thus, media coverage won’t be equal – it depends on many factors and the lawsuits’ various stages.
In gauging your suit’s coverage potential, let’s explore a simplified run-down of the timeline and cycles of lawsuit coverage. For now, we’ll focus only on civil lawsuits (as opposed to criminal).
What Is Covered?
Before we get into triggers for lawsuit coverage, it’s important to understand which lawsuits attract media attention and why.
Both the parties to and the subject matter of lawsuits determine whether they will receive media coverage. Civil cases brought against large corporations, celebrities or billionaires generally get the most attention, simply because the case revolves around someone or something we know. Similarly, lawsuits coming from the U.S. Supreme Court attract extensive coverage, as the issues they address tend to be controversial and national in focus – or both.
Cases with strong business implications are often newsworthy – and if not within the context of a daily newspaper, these are often issues covered in industry-specific outlets. For example, a California-venued case involving an environmental emissions may not make it to the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle, but it may be important to manufacturers of food products nationally – making it a hot one for a publication like Food Safety Magazine or Food Quality & Safety Magazine.
Generally speaking, the most “media-genic” lawsuits involve issues to which a preponderance of the population can relate – civil rights, employment, privacy, consumer protections, and the like. Class actions tend to command coverage when they threaten to strike a blow against large companies or well-recognized brands.
Geography – of both the court venue and the parties to the case – are often factors in which lawsuits are covered. For example, if a suit is filed in Los Angeles or targets a Los Angeles-based company, it might be covered more extensively in the Southern California area than it would in other cities.
Filing of the Complaint
A complaint sets out the facts and legal reasons a plaintiff believes are sufficient to support a claim against the defendant – essentially, it outlines the justification for the lawsuit. When a complaint – noteworthy for any of the aforementioned reasons – is filed, lawyers (and their clients) can expect media attention as these filings are public, and there are often astute reporters assigned to the courts who review such filings.
At this stage in the process, it’s all about the allegations. Take, for example, a lawsuit against a major food brand alleging false advertising claims on one of its products. Once the complaint is filed with the court, it will likely be covered nationally by daily newspapers, as well as in the legal and food industry trade publications. Depending on the brand and reach of the claims, broadcast coverage is also a possibility. This said, the same filing and allegations against a smaller or more regional company may only merit a passing mention in trade media – if at all.
Usually, interest in and the potential for coverage of complaints is short-lived — dying down in the days shortly after filing, unless it is a controversial or particularly timely topic. And unfortunately for many companies and brands, the interest in the outcome – say a quick dismissal on summary judgement – rarely sees the coverage the filing and initial allegations saw.
Many activities are sent in motion when a case is pending trial, but they aren’t all necessarily newsworthy. This does not mean that what happens in the pre-trial phase is any less important – in fact, the events might be the most critical in determining who wins the lawsuit – however, media coverage is triggered by big developments rather than the more nuanced legal wrangling that takes place during the pre-trial phase.
Discovery, motions and court hearings are important in uncovering the evidence that either side may use in trial or to support an array of motions. The majority of this information is limited in its availability to members of the media, and the only publications likely to cover any significant updates tend to be the legal trades – whose ranks are often filled with reporters and editors more educated on the ins-and-outs of trial practice. There is one motion, however, that you’ll often see in media coverage – a summary judgment motion.
A motion for summary judgment is filed by the defense counsel urging the court to find that the plaintiff has not established a material fact to continue the lawsuit. Essentially, the defense is asking the court to declare “the plaintiff has not established this case; therefore, the lawsuit is dismissed.” If the case is actually dismissed and has generated coverage upon filing, you can generally expect coverage of the summary judgement. This said, a seeming “technical” dismissal is not nearly as information rich as the filing of a complaint, so lawyers (and their clients) are often left unsatisfied by the disproportionate attention given to the “nasty allegations” and the limited reception to dismissal of said allegations.
With 95 percent of lawsuits ending in settlements, media consumers rarely learn exactly how matters – even those much ballyhooed upon filing – end. The details of negotiated settlements are often confidential. And while news of a settlement may drop at any time during the case trajectory, the subject matter, parties and available details – especially settlement amount – determine whether or not this sort of resolution draws headlines.
If a lawsuit makes it through the pre-trial phase without a settlement or summary judgment, then we’ve reached the stage with the most media potential – the verdict or judgment. How the jury or court decides in a certain case makes for great news, especially if it is precedent setting – either overriding a state law or conflicting with another recent decision on the same issue. As with the ongoing worker classification lawsuits in various states (known as AB5 in California), every decision is covered, and they occasionally conflict.
How long does media attention last? Well, that depends on how earth-shaking the decision is. Staying with the worker classification example, the issue has been topical for more than two years, and court decisions continue to be covered extensively. These high-impact issues tend to fuel reports until they’ve been resolved one way or another (like a U.S. Supreme Court decision…).
If a lawsuit is appealed (a near-certainty in major matters) this development will get some degree of media attention – again, especially if it involves a major corporation or issue. Appellate proceedings can take several months before oral arguments, and, like pre-trial motion play – the trajectory for appeals is nuanced. As a result, only the biggest and broadest appellate decisions make waves in the media.
Altogether, factors like subject matter, companies involved, location and lawsuit stage play crucial roles in the media interest in a lawsuit. Just like in law, the answer of when a lawsuit will get media attention versus when it won’t is simple – it depends.