Hot Topical Sites For Tort Lawyers
How to find out information about all those things that go bump in the night and day.
By Robert J Ambrogi
FOR PERSONAL-injury lawyers, success can turn on their depth of knowledge concerning the cause of the injury -- the science, the engineering, the causes of action, and the existence or not of smoking guns.
Because of this, tort lawyers realized early on that the Web could be most valuable not for legal research, but for factual investigation. Today, whether the plaintiff's injury resulted from years of cigarette smoking or the sudden blowout of a tire, there is sure to be a Web site devoted to the topic. This article looks at some of those sites.
When starting general products-related research, an invaluable source is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. With CPSC's focus on protecting the public from unsafe and defective products, its site is a treasure trove for information about product recalls. The site includes statistical reports analyzing injuries caused by particular types of products, ranging from amusement rides to shopping carts. In the enormous publications library, you can find booklets on the hazards of lead paint in public playgrounds, preventing crib deaths and avoiding lawnmower injuries.
Two other valuable government sites are those of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov. The DOT's mega-site includes databases of laws, regulations, product recalls and safety notices from agencies under the DOT umbrella, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Railroad Administration. Similarly, the FDA offers a wealth of resources regarding the products that fall under its jurisdiction, including food, human and animal drugs, biologics, medical and radiological devices, and cosmetics. Information available here includes the latest drug approvals as well as product safety and recall alerts.
To determine how many deaths resulted from a specific type of product, turn to the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, from the Centers for Disease Control. Using mortality data from 1981 to 1997, WISQARS pronounced "whiskers" allows users to search and create reports in two formats. The first, mortality reports, tells numbers and rates of deaths for specific injuries, such as from firearms, machinery, burns or motor vehicle accidents. The second, leading causes of death, can be used to determine the number of injury-related deaths relative to the number of other leading causes of death.
Another starting point for product-safety research is Standards & Specifications. It provides links to more than 50 collections of full-text professional standards and specifications, promulgated by organizations such as the Acoustical Society of America, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Iron and Steel Institute, American National Standards Institute, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, SAE International, and others.
Two of the most useful motor-vehicle sites come form the NHTSA. The first is its Automobile Recall Database, which allows searches of recall campaigns by year, make or model. The other is the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which provides data on all fatalities resulting from motor-vehicle crashes on public roads. Users can query the data by a broad range of information fields, from details about the individuals involved to information on traffic-control devices at the accident scene. A "wizard" helps with common queries.
Although aimed at consumers, another site of value to lawyers is Crashtest.com. It compiles safety assessments of new and used cars from federal and insurance sources, allowing users to compare cars of different makes and years. Crashtest includes figures for side-impact and full frontal collisions, frontal offsets and head restraints, amounts paid by insurance companies for personal injury claims and collision damage, and death rates for different makes and models.
Crash-test ratings are also available from the industry-sponsored Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It includes ratings from 40 mph frontal offset tests, as well as results of low-speed bumper tests. Also here is a broad library of IIHS research on issues relating to motor vehicle safety, ranging from aftermarket parts to urban crashes. The library includes state motor vehicle laws and fatality reports. Data is also provided on injury, collision and theft losses by vehicle.
For engineering research, start with the Society of Automotive Engineers, where you can find technical standards and specifications relating to cars, aircraft, trucks, off-highway equipment, engines, materials, manufacturing and fuel. For a primer on tires, attend Goodyear's Tire School, where you will be introduced to grades, traction, tread, temperature ranges, care and wear.
Of course, a number of sites now focus on Bridgestone/Firestone tires, including the company's own site devoted to the recall. Among the best of these sites for plaintiffs is Safetyforum.com. Sponsored by two plaintiffs' law firms, it includes a fairly extensive collection of news reports, industry documents, links and litigation information.
In the field of airplane safety, once again the federal government hosts one of the most useful sites. Aviation Safety Data, from the Federal Aviation Administration, provides access to the principal federal databases relating to aviation accidents and safety. These include the NTSBA's Incident Database, the official repository of data regarding aviation accidents and causes; the more extensive FAA Incident Data System; and the Near Midair Collisions System Database, involving incidents in which aircraft were within 500 feet or less of each other.
A site that might better be called "Fear of Flying" is AirSafe.com. Use it to search for airplane fatalities by airline, location or type of aircraft, or simply go to a list of all airline fatalities since 1970. (There is also a list of airlines without fatalities.) Sections of the site are devoted to specific air crashes, while others offer tips on how to use the Web to investigate or find more information on a crash.
The Web has no shortage of sites devoted to the hazards of tobacco, but one of the most fascinating comes from the PBS public-affairs program Frontline. Based on a documentary that aired in 1998, Inside the Tobacco Deal, tells the story of how two small-town Mississippi lawyers took on the tobacco industry. The detailed site includes deposition excerpts, interview transcripts, an analysis of the criminal probe of the tobacco industry, an analysis of the tobacco deal and timelines of significant events.
As state attorneys general around the U.S. joined forces against the tobacco industry, they created the State Tobacco Information Center, to keep the public informed of developments in the litigation. With the litigation settled, this site now serves as an archive of trial documents. Organized by state, this extensive collection provides the full text of pleadings, memoranda, affidavits and court orders, while a summary page provides key details about suits in each state.
An even more extensive collection is Tobacco Industry Documents, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. The bulk of this material is from the Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository, reportedly the world's largest hardcopy cache of industry documents. With more than 27 million pages, the depository was created in 1995 to house documents from the trial in Minnesota v. Philip Morris Inc., and grew to include documents made public through other lawsuits as well as congressional investigations.
Also from PBS's Frontline is one of the top sites on breast-implant litigation, Breast Implants on Trial, based on a report broadcast Feb. 27, 1996. This site, the companion to that broadcast, has sections focusing on the legal, medical, corporate and personal aspects of the controversy. It includes full transcripts of the closing arguments from Gladys Laas' 1994 jury trial against Dow Corning Corporation, in which she was awarded $5.2 million. It also houses various medical reports and medical journal articles on breast implants, and corporate documents from Dow Corning. The site is not updated.
David E. Bernstein, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law, believes that breast implant litigation has been driven not by scientific evidence, but by politics, sensationalistic media coverage, and a contingency fee system that encourages speculative litigation. His Breast Implant Litigation Home Page, presents his case, with links to scientific and medical reports concluding that there is no link between implants and systemic disease, as well as his own articles on breast implants, tort reform and junk science.
For toxic-tort litigators, Toxlaw.com, serves as a Web-based news and discussion forum. It features the Toxboard, an unmoderated, Usenet-style news forum where visitors can post and reply to questions or pass along news, press releases, comments or observations related to the field of toxic tort litigation. Other forums target sick-building syndrome and multiple-chemical sensitivity. The site's ChemTracker is a tool for performing chemical, pathogen and allergen research over multiple Web sites, including those of the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.
A site devoted to latex allergies is ELASTIC, the Education for Latex Allergy Support Team & Information Coalition. Lawyers should jump directly to the page of latex-litigation links, which includes timely reports of verdicts, case filings and other developments drawn from newspapers, verdict reporters, law journals, law-firm Web sites, and elsewhere.
Robert J. Ambrogi is director of the American Lawyer Media News Service and a contributing editor to LTN.