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I learned a new word the other day: astroturf.

I mean, of course, not the stuff that's used in place of grass for indoor sports arenas, but rather a technique used by some advocacy groups to create the appearance of an up swell in popular opinion. Because the technique is actually employed by sophisticated PR agents to create the false appearance of popular opinion, the "grassroots" are fake. Hence, astroturf.

I wrote recently on my personal site about once such example of astroturf that appeared in the Enid News.

The letter to the editor, purportedly written by one Bradley A. Gungoll of Gungoll, Jackson, Collins, Box & Devoll, P.C., begins with a summary of six supposed "examples" of frivolous lawsuits.

Mr. Gungoll's letter then informs us that these cases are fake and that the "Stella Awards" (named after Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the infamous McDonalds coffee case) reference other cases that are fake.

The balance of the letter reasons that, because these six referenced cases are fake, and because Stella Liebeck suffered real injuries, therefore there is no reason for tort reform.

The letter concludes:

"The framers of the Constitution protected our rights. Lesser minds are attempting to cut off those rights for children, single parents and the elderly. Your rights are being assaulted and the basis is bogus. Tort reform sounds great until it is your grandmother, or your child, whose life is altered forever by a negligent act. The concept of tort reform is only superficially persuasive. Once you know the facts, it is without merit."

The astroturf element of the letter becomes clearer when you compare it to two pages on the ATLA's website.

Just like Mr. Gungoll's letter, the ATLA website runs through the six fake cases (which it claims come from a 2002 email hoax) and then returns to the Stella Liebeck case, telling us why her coffee burn claims weren't frivolous after all.

Mr. Gungoll's letter lists seven bullet points about the Stella Liebeck case. Compare those seven bullet points to the similar section in a 1997 letter by Howard Twiggs, then-president of the ATLA.

The letters are sufficiently different that you wouldn't that they're copies, but both cover substantially the same points in the same order.

Key to this letter's importance is its illogic: the letter sets up the six fake examples as representing the "fuel" of tort reform.

Nothing could be farther from the case. The six fake e-mails have been well known to be fake for years. Since 2001 the urban legend website, Snopes.com, has carried this article de-bunking the "Stella Awards" email.

No serious advocate for tort reform holds out the "Stella Awards" email as real.

Of course the real question is why an attorney, the vice-president of his county's trial lawyer association, would publish a letter that responds to arguments that no one has made.

One reason is that the ATLA encourages its members to write these kinds of letters. Astroturf.

The second reason is apparent from the writer's website, which now soliciting persons who have taken Vioxx and Bextra for possible lawsuits against the manufacturers.

As the saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. Even if it's astroturf.

**Update: A friendly reader offered the comment that it's only astroturf when the writer disguises his role as an advocate. The writer of the Enid News letter did not disguise his role as a trial lawyer. Point well taken.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.