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Thursday, August 14, 2003

"Sexed-up" evidence

I'm amused by the coverage of the "Blair vs. BBC" fight for public opinion that's going on in the UK now — in large part because of a difference it exposes between British English and American English.

The allegation being made against Tony Blair and his cabinet is that it "sexed up" the presentation of evidence about the justifications for war in Iraq.  I gather that "sexed up" isn't a new idiom in British English, but it pretty much is new to American ears.

Except maybe for that perverse sub-slice of Americans known as trial lawyers.

'No Sex Please, We're British' movie posterIt's sort of odd, because I know that one of the longest-running plays on the West End in London (1971-1987) was something called, "No Sex, Please, We're British."

For as long as I can remember, in my conversations with other trial lawyers — shop talk — one of the conversational shortcuts we've used to characterize evidence is "sexy."  And as with the British usage, apparently, this is true even for cases that have nothing to do with real sex.

  • Scenario No. 1:  MegaBlivit Corp. manufactures a blivit with a degree of metal brittleness that's twenty-five percent above the maximum limits set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), as a result of which one of its blivits shatters under stress on a cold day, causing the Wide Canyon Bridge to fall on top of Mr. Woebegone.

  • Scenario No. 2:  Fred Fastguy, CEO of MegaBlivit Corp., is worried that his company is about to lose the big Wide Canyon Bridge contract, so he sneaks into the science lab after hours and steals a memo from the locked desk drawer of one of the junior scientists — a memo that was written to inform management that the degree of brittleness in the metal used by MegaBlivit is way too high.  Then Fred shreds the memo and transfers the junior scientist to MegaBlivit's branch office in Paraguay.  One of MegaBlivit's blivits shatters under stress on a cold day, causing the Wide Canyon Bridge to fall on top of Mr. Woebegone.

If I'm representing Mr. Woebegone's family, I can probably win my lawsuit for them with the evidence described in Scenario No. 1.  But it's not sexy evidenceMegaBlivit Corp. I'd have to worry about the jury nodding off as I'm qualifying my expert witness to give testimony on metallurgy.  I'd have to really work hard to make the jury understand how every responsible blivit manufacturer is really careful about their testing because so much can go wrong if they screw up.  And nobody will ever offer my clients $250k for the movie rights to the story, or me $100k to be a "technical consultant" on the film.

If I manage to extract the evidence in Scenario No. 2, though, then I've got evidence that any trial lawyer would immediately recognize — and describe in conversations with other trial lawyers — as sexy!  Now any mullet of a trial lawyer can grab the jury's attention, promise them a drama with a villain and a victim, and probably get them to answer "Yes!" to all the questions that will end up resulting in a big punitive damages award on top of the regular (a/k/a "actual") damages they award.  In fact, even the regular damages are likely to be pumped up — even though Mr. Woebegone is no more dead in Scenario No. 2 than in Scenario No. 1.

Now the specific usage of "sexed up" to describe something that's been exaggerated — I can't claim to have heard that, even in trial lawyer bull-sessions.

But I suspect every American trial lawyer got a special grin when we heard of the liberated Iraqi who celebrated by shouting, "Democracy!  Whiskey!  Sexy!

Posted by Beldar at 10:29 PM in Law (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


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