Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hear ye, hear ye

Not long ago, getting assigned to cover a restaurant lawsuit was akin to discovering Hertz had upgraded you from a Neon to a Crossfire, without providing a drop of gas. All you could do was circle and gawk, and pretend you were actually getting somewhere. In the pre-Internet days, if the case was being heard in Sacramento, or Dayton, or Tallahassee, or almost anywhere you didn’t happen to be, you were limited to following the glacially slow proceedings through local media, and going through the pretense of talking to the two sides’ lawyers. No matter what they said during an interview, the message was the same: “Tut-tut, mere plebian. We, being of lawyerly intelligence, know how laughable our opponent’s argument is. And you’d see it, too, if you had the cerebral spark of a daft mallard.”

Fast-forward to the case underway right now in Las Angeles, where 62-year-old Louise Turner, a customer of a Shanghai Red’s restaurant in Marina Del Rey, CA, is suing operator Specialty Restaurant Corp. for negligence. Turner burned herself seriously when, she alleges, she felt into an open-air fire pit maintained by the establishment. Her lawyers commenced their opening arguments at midday in the Superior Court.

I know all of this because the law firm representing her issued a detailed press release on today’s proceedings. The statement was broken down into Who, What, When and Where sections, just like the releases we routinely receive about ribbon cuttings at ice cream stores, or the presentation of an oversized check by a company to a local charity. It’s a cliché that we’ve become a more litigious society. What seems to have gone unnoticed is how those legal tussles are being so deftly pushed into the court of public opinion.

In this instance, the firm of Greene Broillet & Wheeler alerted us (and several hundred thousand other journalists) that the case was even moving to trail. Tomorrow we’ll likely get more highlights, as we would if we were covering a Presidential campaign.

It may be an extreme example of flag waving to grab publicity for a firm and perhaps garner sympathy for a plaintiff suing a restaurant. But it’s hardly rare. Law firms, forbidden to advertise until about two decades ago, are now wielding publicity like the pros.

And that’s not good for restaurant-plaintiffs. Specialty, perhaps best known for its heavily combat-themed restaurants near airports, has yet to counter in kind as best as we can tell. And what can it say? “We’re sorry that Turner fell into a pit and was horribly burned, but it was her own fault”? It doesn’t exactly play well from a PR standpoint.

But I’d better shut up, before I see something on the wire saying, “Opening arguments against Romeo begin tomorrow in the Superior Court of Mineola…”

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