Thursday, May 22, 2008

Loaded Questions

On April 2, the Institute for Legal Reform released the results of a consumer survey that indicated consumers oppose legislation regulating the use of binding arbitration in consumer disputes (the proposed Arbitration Fairness Act). The telephone poll found that 71 percent of likely voters oppose efforts by Congress to ban arbitration agreements from consumer contracts. 82 percent actually prefer arbitration to litigation as a means to settle a serious dispute with a company. The American Association for Justice says its survey shows the opposite. 81 percent of Americans express disapproval of mandatory binding arbitration. 64 percent of voters favor the legislation, 26 percent oppose it. How can this be?

Here's one of the statements made as part of the American Association for Justice poll:

"As you may know, consumers are sometimes required to sign a contract with a company when they buy certain services or products such as automobiles, cell phones, or nursing home care. Today, these contracts often include a binding arbitration provision, which says that the consumer agrees to have any dispute with the company decided by an independent arbitrator in binding arbitration, rather than by a judge or jury in a civil legal proceeding. Do you approve or disapprove of these binding arbitration provisions in consumer contracts?"

Now here's one from the Institute for Legal Reform poll:

"Now suppose for a moment you had to sign a contract with a company when you purchased their goods or services. If you could choose the method by which any serious dispute would be settled between you and the company, which would you choose? Arbitration, which does not require going to court ...or... Litigation, which does require a lawsuit and going to court. "

Hat tip to Consumer Law and Policy Blog.

Neither statement provides an intelligent person with the information necessary to answer the question. If I ever get a call from a poll taker, I'd want to know what my "right to go to court" costs me in terms of the price I pay for consumer goods and services. I'd ask about the odds for consumers in arbitration vs. judicial resolution of their disputes. I'd want to know what was in it for me — apart from empty rhetoric about my right to "go to court" or vague inferences about the relative "fairness" of arbitration vs. adjudication. And, in the extremely unlikely event that I did not hang up on the poll taker within seconds after he mispronounces my name, I'd resent being used as a tool for others whose stake in the controversy dwarfs that of the average consumer.

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