Lies, Damn Lies, and Polls

As the Texas Senate holds fire on HB 4, various interest groups for and against tort reform have been busy with letter-writing campaigns, ads, and polls. On April 16, the Quorum Report featured a poll by Allyn & Company conducted on behalf of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which opposes HB 4. Allyn polled 1,200 frequent primary voters, mostly Republican (partly because those are the most likely voters to turn out in any special election to amend the Texas Constitution and allow caps on noneconomic damages in civil lawsuits). Most polled said the state's priorities should be solving the budget crisis, reining in homeowners insurance costs, and fixing Robin Hood -- tort reform ranked sixth of eight issues. Asked specific questions concerning tort reform and HB 4, large majorities thought noneconomic damage caps are a bad idea and that HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals should be held more, not less, accountable. A full 80% disagreed with the statement "I trust politicians more than juries."

It took one day for Bryan Eppstein of the Eppstein Group to come out with guns blazing against the TTLA poll. Eppstein has been polling on behalf of the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Hospital Association, and the Texas Alliance for Patient Access, all supporters of HB 4. Also in Quorum Report, Eppstein sputtered that "there appears to be little difference in the veracity of the Iraqi Minister of Information and TTLA's pollster [Rob Allyn]. Both are unashamed liars." Eppstein dismissed the Allyn poll as a "push-poll" that predetermined responses and said his own polls have found that large majorities of voters support noneconomic damage caps and limits on attorney fees in malpractice lawsuits and would support a constitutional amendment to make these things possible.

But just as the Allyn poll emphasized the downside of tort reform, the Eppstein poll carefully elided the distinction between tort reform in general and medical-malpractice litigation in particular -- and each poll found results satisfactory to those who paid for it.

Last week AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills also took a close look at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad campaign, promoting tort reform in Texas and in D.C., that claims runaway lawsuits are ruining the economy, driving away business, eliminating jobs, etc., etc. The chamber ads cite yet another poll -- a Harris Interactive survey finding that Texas ranks 46th among states in its reputation for "a fair and reasonable legal environment." But buried in the fine print, notes Sills, is a notice that this ranking is based on a "nationally representative sample of senior attorneys at companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. Of this sample, 44% of respondents were from companies with annual revenues of $1 billion and over." Given that "representative sample," comments Sills, "the results on this poll are as persuasive for policy purposes as a poll of my kids on whether candy should assume its rightful place on the USDA food pyramid."

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