It’s not a new idea for reform — I suggested it as my contribution to a book fifteen years ago, it had been kicked around for decades already at that point, England has done it, and we’ve discussed it here. But the route of making progress, as befits our age of anti-discrimination, has been the piecemeal extension of so-called Batson challenges in which it is argued that lawyers used their peremptories to exclude a protected demographic group. The editorialists of the L.A. Times discuss the latest, a Ninth Circuit ruling extending the list of forbidden categories to include sexual orientation.
In May 2001, Cheryl Jane Hale was driving four children to a sleepover in her 1987 Ford Bronco. She didn’t bother to have the children wear their seat belts, so, when she took her eyes off the road to argue with the backseat passengers, and thus drove off the road and flipped the car, 12-year-old Jesse Branham was thrown from the car and suffered brain damage. A jury in Hampton County, South Carolina (the second jury to be impaneled—the first one was dismissed in a mistrial when it was discovered after two weeks of trial that five of the jurors were former clients of Branham’s lawyers) decided that this was only 45% Hale’s fault, held Ford 55% responsible, which puts Ford entirely on the hook for $31 million in damages.
On Monday, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed because of prejudicial closing arguments that relied heavily on inadmissible evidence. More importantly for lawyers practicing in South Carolina, the Court adopted “the risk-utility test with its requirement of showing a feasible alternative design.”
How bad of a judicial hellhole is Hampton County? Though Hale was a co-defendant, she cooperated with the plaintiffs throughout the trial in their case against Ford, even sitting at the plaintiffs’ table; but because the judge classified Hale as a co-defendant, it meant that Hale got half of the peremptory challenges of the “defense.” More from Comer; no press coverage that I’ve seen yet. (cross-posted from Point of Law)
- Wisconsin lawyer pressing bill to allow punitive damages against home resellers over claimed defects [Wisconsin State Journal] More: Dad29.
- Longer than her will? NY Times posts ten-page jury questionnaire in Brooke Astor inheritance case [“City Room”] “Supreme Court: No Constitutional Right to Peremptory Challenge” [Anne Reed]
- Georgia’s sex offender law, like Illinois’s, covers persons who never committed a sex crime [Balko]
- “The lawsuits over TVA’s coal ash spill have come from all over Roane County – except the spots closest to home.” [Knoxville News]
- Bootleg soap: residents smuggle detergents after enactment of Spokane phosphate ban [AP/Yahoo]
- UK: Elderly Hindu man in religious-accommodation bid for approval of open-air funeral pyre [Telegraph]
- No DUI, no one hurt, but harsh consequences anyway when Connecticut 18 year old is caught buying six-pack of beer [Fountain]
- Only one or two not covered previously at this site [“12 Most Ridiculous Lawsuits”, Oddee]
- Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator; mine is Pie Gallon Palin. #
- McCain assails SEC’s Cox, but Bainbridge is going with Cox; #
- Yes, racial profiling figures into use of peremptory challenges [Sommers, Psychology Today via Deliberations] #
- SEC’s net capital rule waivers to blame for credit blowup? [NYSun] #
- NY Observer’s Doonan cool to Palin eyeglass craze; #
- Business lobbies went along with expansion of ADA litigant categories [Point of Law] #
- @teafortillerman I think “trough gutted palin” is the best I’ve seen yet #
- Don’t blame Gramm-Leach-Bliley for housing bubble [MargRev] #
- Experimentally incorporating Twitter into Overlawyered; #
- @kevinokeefe I’m using Firefox and “follow” button on Twitter fails until I refresh. #
- PR firm retracts Tweet that sought to scare up class action plaintiffs [O’Keefe] #
- Housekeeping service in Florida proclaims, “We Speak English”. So will they get sued? [Smerconish/Phila. Daily News]
- Update: Dad who long ago walked out on his family won’t get chunk of estranged son’s $2.9 million 9/11 fund benefit [NY Post (link fixed now); earlier]
- Did Illinois state’s attorneys advise Marine sergeant complaining of car vandalism that there wasn’t much point trying to recover from the suspected offender since he was a lawyer? [Blackfive via Zincavage and many readers; Kass/Tribune] And what kind of trouble might the lawyer be in if he suggested slipping the repair costs along to an insurer? [Patterico commenters, Goldberg/NRO Corner correspondent] More: Bainbridge.
- Not long after American Lawyer pronounces the demise of securities class actions, we learn they may be back on a cyclical upswing [August TAL; new Stanford Clearinghouse]
- If rising tide of outrage leads to abolition of peremptory challenges, many lawyers won’t have anyone to blame but themselves [Reed]
- Brooklyn judge’s presenting of box of candy to plaintiff among grounds for reversal of $14 million brain-damaged infant verdict [NYLJ]
- Yet more health privacy madness: “HIPAA is adversely affecting our ability to conduct biomedical research” [Reuters on JAMA study via Kevin MD; relatedly, Karvounis/HealthBeat]
- People kept tearing down no-swimming signs at much-used park in Bellingham, Wash., and you know what’s going to happen next without our having to tell you [AP/Seattle Times]
- Two Illinois judges in drunk-driving accident that broke other driver’s leg draw mere reprimand with “no consequences other than public embarrassment” [Post-Dispatch]
- Suit against Avvo lawyer-rating suit dismissed on First Amendment grounds [Seattle Times, Post-Intelligencer; earlier]
- Saves her friend’s life, then sues her [seven years ago on Overlawyered]
- Encouraging kids’ adoption is a great thing to do, but there are right and wrong ways of going about it [U.K. Daily Mail]
- Defensive medical testing: “Every day I work as a doctor, I must choose between committing malpractice and committing insurance fraud.” [Dr. Paula Hartzell in Medical Economics]
- After serving 2+ years for consensual sex with fellow teen, Genarlow Wilson (Feb. 8, Mar. 6) may walk free, or maybe not [CNN; views of some Andrew Sullivan readers]
- “We need to eliminate nuisance lawsuits through ‘loser-pays’ provisions.” [candidate Giuliani @ NRO]
- Boston Herald (May 11, etc.) pays $3.4 million to local judge to settle libel verdict [Globe]
- Blind squirrel finds acorn dept.: American Prospect weblog promotes a good idea, abolishing peremptory challenges [Tapped; more]
- Disciplinary hearing begins against Duke DA Nifong [ABCNews.com]; you’d think lacrosse player’s out-of-town alibi might have raised a red flag [K. C. Johnson via Cernovich]
- Another flap, this time from Oklahoma, about a doc who vows to turn away malpractice-suit advocates as patients [Enid News & Eagle via KevinMD]
- No shock, Sherlock: mud-slinging, money-flinging found to be big problems in state high court races [AP]
- In that curious saga of Madison County, Ill.’s oft-suing Peach family (earlier posts here and here) Armettia Peach has settled her leaky-roof case against Granite City [M. C. Record]
- New York “plastic surgery addict” loses case claiming doctor should have counseled her against going under the knife so often [six years ago on Overlawyered]
The Washington Times does some reporting on John Edwards’s trial practice in North Carolina. (“Edwards’ malpractice suits leave bitter taste”, Aug. 16). Reporter Charles Hurt talks to local doctors about Edwards’ cerebral palsy cases and also relates the following story about the role of jury selection in one of the future senator’s prominent cases:
“In 1991 [in Wake County], he won $2.2 million for the estate of a woman who hanged herself in a hospital after being removed from suicide watch. … During jury selection, Mr. Edwards asked potential jurors whether they could hold a doctor responsible for the suicide of their patients.
“I got a lot of speeches from potential jurors who said they did not understand how that doctor could be responsible,” Mr. Edwards recalled in an interview shortly after the trial. Those persons were excluded from the jury.
The article doesn’t say whether Mr. Edwards had to use up his peremptory challenges against the skeptical jurors or was able to get them purged for cause. Either way, it’s a reminder of one way the political process is both more open to diversity and more responsive to public opinion than the trial process: you can’t eject citizens from the voter pool just for holding the wrong sorts of views.
May 9-11 — Senate panel nixes tobacco-fee clawback. “Senators working on a tax bill Thursday stripped a proposal that would have forced attorneys in a landmark tobacco lawsuit to give $9 billion in fees back to the states they represented.” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., had proposed requiring plaintiff’s lawyers in the tobacco affair to return to their state-government clients fees in excess of $2,500/hour or thereabouts. “But Democrats, led by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and joined by Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Gordon Smith of Oregon, won a 12-8 vote to strike the language. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that if Congress can change the terms of the tobacco settlement, there is nothing to stop it from telling every business in America to change the way they pay their executives.” It’s almost as if Sen. Kerry doesn’t realize that 1) a host of federal laws already on the books, notably tax provisions, do purposely shape the way businesses compensate their executives; 2) lawyers, unlike business execs, practice under professional ethical codes which are supposed to bar them specifically from charging excessive fees; 3) lawyers who claim to represent the government (and thus the public) come under some of the most stringent ethical constraints of all. (“Senate Democrats Strike Proposal to Limit Fees for Lawyers in Tobacco Case”, AP/Tampa Bay Online, May 8; Stephen Moore, “Targeting lawyers who got rich off tobacco trials”, Scripps Howard/Nando Times, May 2) (& welcome Law.com readers). (DURABLE LINK)
May 9-11 — Update: “U.S. is sued for deaths of crossers”. “The families of 14 illegal entrants who died crossing the desert east of Yuma in May 2001 have filed a $42 million lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior.” As we reported a year ago when the cases were at an earlier procedural stage, “The suit charges the government with failing to authorize the placement of water stations intended for use by unlawful visitors, though it knew smugglers of immigrants were active in the desert area.” (Michael Marizco, Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), May 8). (DURABLE LINK)
May 8 — “No Crueler Tyrannies”. Dorothy Rabinowitz’s long-awaited book on the mass-child-abuse accusation frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s is now available at this link. It collects and extends the widely acclaimed Wall Street Journal reporting that prepared the way for the author’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize (review by Carol Iannone, Commentary, May; C-SPAN “Booknotes” interview with Brian Lamb, May 4; Suzanne Fields, “A cruel tyranny at home”, syndicated/TownHall, Apr. 3; other reviews at Amazon site). (DURABLE LINK)
May 8 — More on Edwards’ law-firm donations. Washington periodical The Hill digs deeper into the curiously uniform $2,000 contributions Sen. John Edwards’ presidential campaign got from so many receptionists, paralegals and other low-level staffers at plaintiff’s law firms. The $2,000 donors include many employees who had not given to candidates or even voted in the past, and others who are listed on the voting rolls as Republicans. Many spouses and relatives of the staffers likewise contributed the maximum. Some of the munificent staffers have recently gone through the kind of personal financial reverses — bankruptcy filings, for example — which would not seem to correlate in the natural order of things with having a large available checkbook for political donations. “In many instances, all the checks from a given firm arrived on the same day — from partners, attorneys, and other support staff.” Employees denied that their law-firm employers had signaled any willingness to reimburse the donations, which would constitute a violation of federal law. (Sam Dealey, “Donations to Sen. Edwards questioned”, The Hill, May 7). (DURABLE LINK)
May 7 — Mississippi investigation heats up. Per the Times of South Mississippi (Hattiesburg), the “net may be widening” in the FBI’s previously reported investigation of improper ties between Mississippi judges and well-known trial lawyers (see Oct. 9-10 and 11-13, 2002). “Sources said this week as many as 25 indictments could be issued …While reports of the investigation have focused on the Gulf Coast, sources said the probe now includes campaign contributions from trial lawyers connected to Southwest Mississippi,” renowned as the center of intense litigation against pharmaceutical companies. (“Bob Pittman, “FBI widening its investigation of campaign funding”, Times of South Mississippi (Hattiesburg), May 5. See also “Diaz’s dad testifies before grand jury”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Apr. 12; Jerry Mitchell, “Judicial probe intensifying”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, May 2).
“Meanwhile,” the Hattiesburg paper continues, “four trial lawyers who have been active in lawsuits against prescription drug manufacturers are named as defendants in a growing number of court actions in Jefferson County. In at least four suits filed to date, trial lawyers Dennis Sweet, Shane Langston, Richard Freese and Richard Schwartz, all of Jackson, have been named as defendants in cases in which it is alleged that the four either withheld settlement money from clients or failed to pay hired ‘runners’ who were employed to enroll plaintiffs in cases which the lawyers filed in several different counties in Mississippi, including Jasper County.” (May 5 article, cited above). See also Bob Pittman, “Judge asked to step aside in trial lawyer suit”, May 1; Bob Pittman, “Suit alleges lawyer used ‘fake clients'”, May 1. (DURABLE LINK)
May 7 — Jury selection in Britain. Notwithstanding the understandable outcry over a recent case in which a British judge excluded prospective jurors from a politically sensitive trial based on their religion, the general rule in the English system is for jurors to be drawn from a near-universal pool and selection to be made at random. “English lawyers are not pestered by jury consultants: they do not exist here. We do not have days of jury selection before a trial starts, as I have seen for myself several times in the United States, with prospective jurors questioned in depth and sometimes with aggression by lawyers anxious to explore possible prejudices. Defense barristers in England used to have the right of seven (then whittled down to three) peremptory challenges without any need for courtroom interrogation….But Parliament abolished peremptory challenges by the defense in 1989, and although not technically abolished, ‘standing by for the Crown’ [the equivalent for the prosecution] now seldom occurs.” For-cause challenges are rare as well. (Fenton Bresler, “Picking juries — or not”, National Law Journal, Mar. 17, not online). (DURABLE LINK)
May 6 — “Robber sues clerk who shot him during holdup”. Muncie, Ind.: “A convicted robber is suing the convenience store clerk who shot him as he fled after a holdup. Willie Brown, 44, claimed the clerk acted ‘maliciously and sadistically’ in firing five shots as Brown ran out of Zipps Deli with money from the store’s cash register.” Brown, who was struck by bullets in the back and side, pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to four years in prison. His earlier convictions included one for robbery and two for burglary. (AP/Indianapolis Star, Apr. 18). And in Great Britain, “Government lawyers trying to keep the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin behind bars will tell a High Court judge tomorrow that burglars are members of the public who must be protected from violent householders.” (Robert Verkaik, “Government lawyers say burglars ‘need protection'”, The Independent (UK), May 5). Plus: in Bentonville, Ark., inmate Kenneth J. Lewis II is suing Nina Baugh for $140,000 in damages; according to affidavits, Lewis was shot by Baugh after he attempted to burglarize her family’s pawn shop and another business. Lewis was sentenced in January to 12 years’ imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to commercial burglary and aggravated assault (Tracy M. Neal, “Convicted burglar sues woman who shot him during crime”, Benton County Daily Record, Apr. 19). (DURABLE LINK)
May 6 — Year’s most injudicious judges. The National Law Journal‘s annual survey of misbehavior on the bench includes jurists alleged to have slept with litigants, offered to fix cases, set new records for rudeness, and run a Ponzi scheme from chambers, not to mention the jurist who is said to have referred to himself as “God”. (Gail Diane Cox, “The Injudicious: Judges who crossed the line — or erased it”, May 5). (DURABLE LINK)
May 5 — Friends in high places, cont’d. A bill expanding wrongful death damages — a top priority of the state’s trial lawyer association — is moving quickly through the GOP-controlled New York state senate; it happens that the “head of the Judiciary Committee and the sponsor of the bill is big-time trial lawyer John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse). It’s not just Democrats like Assembly Speaker (and trial lawyer) Shelly Silver who are in the lawyer lobby’s pocket.” (“Lawyer leeches would bleed N.Y.C.” (editorial), New York Daily News, Apr. 18)(more on bill, Business Council of New York State)(see Dec. 13-15, 2002, Oct. 4, 2000). And in Kansas, “Gov. Kathleen Sebelius used her first veto to reject a bill designed to promote rural tourism. Specifically, the bill would shield from lawsuits farmers and ranchers who, for a fee, let people watch and take part in some farm activities. … The strongest opposition to the bill came from the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association, which employed Sebelius as executive director before her election to the House in 1986.” (Steve Painter, “Sebelius vetoes farmer liability shield”, Wichita Eagle, Apr. 16). While with the KTLA Sebelius “worked closely with the Legislature as a lobbyist” (bio) and then went on to attract widespread notice as her state’s insurance commissioner before running for governor. (DURABLE LINK)
May 5 — Prospering despite reform. Some observers thought the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 law “was aimed at putting [class action firm] Milberg Weiss — and especially partner William Lerach, the lawyer many corporate executives love to hate — out of business. … Instead, according to a new study by Stanford Law School’s Securities Class Action Clearinghouse and Cornerstone Research, Milberg Weiss is doing better than ever.” (Tamara Loomis, “Milberg Weiss Stronger Than Ever Despite Reform Act”, New York Law Journal, Apr. 24). An analysis for the Cato Institute by Adam S. Pritchard of the University of Michigan Law School concludes that the law has, as intended, worked to raise the average quality of securities suits and weed out those with least merit. (“Should Congress Repeal Securities Class Action Reform?”, Cato Policy Analysis, Feb. 27 (executive summary, full text in PDF format)). (DURABLE LINK)
May 3-4 — “Streets Strewn With Glass, Gold”. Don’t miss this profile of D.C.’s subculture of “accident investigators” who solicit participants in car crashes to file lawsuits, often bombarding their phones with evening and early-morning calls for days. “The lawyer who introduced him to the business was killed by a car while standing on an exit ramp, apparently talking with accident victims, [“personal injury specialist” Warren] Johnson says.” (Libby Copeland, Washington Post, May 1). (DURABLE LINK)
May 3-4 — By reader acclaim: “Student sues over top title”. “A Moorestown [N.J.] High School senior, contending that the district superintendent is engineering new rules that would force her to share the title of valedictorian with another student, sued school officials yesterday. Blair L. Hornstine, 18, who aspires to be a lawyer, asked a federal judge to prevent the school from declaring valedictorian anyone other than the student with the highest GPA.” (John Shiffman, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2; Tanya Barrientos, “Student’s lawsuit shows lack of class”, May 3). Update May 13: Hornstine wins suit (DURABLE LINK)
May 1-2 — It ain’t heavy to him, he’s my brother. In September, according to the National Law Journal‘s “Verdicts and Settlements” column (Oct. 7, 2002, not online) a Texas jury awarded $134,000 to Jennifer Grobe, an employee of the Granite & Iron Store in Fredericksburg. “According to Grobe, she suffered two herniated lumbar discs when she lifted one of two 100- to 125-pound granite tables that the store’s owners had left in the entrance”. Why Grobe’s claim went to a jury in the form of a lawsuit, rather than to the workers’ comp system, is not clear from the context.
The bit in the NLJ‘s report that drew our attention was the following: Grobe’s suit alleged that her employer was negligent “for placing the tables in the entrance and for failing to comply with store policy by not having two male employees available.” Perhaps we’re missing something, but wouldn’t the employer have faced likely liability exposure if it had enforced a policy of “having two male employees available” to handle heavy deliveries? As any self-respecting sex-discrimination litigator would point out, such a policy closes off some work opportunities to women and trades on impermissible (no matter how generally accurate) stereotypes of men as wielding greater upper-body strength. (DURABLE LINK)
May 1-2 — Those litigious Americans. “An ad for Dutch brewer Heineken NV depicts lawsuit-happy Americans suing each other over spilled beer…The idea is that Heineken is so good it makes Americans abandon their litigious natures.” (Erin White, “National Lampoon: U.K. Ads Satirize American Demeanor”, Wall Street Journal, Apr. 28, online subscribers only). (DURABLE LINK)
May 20 — Suing ’til the cows come home. From a Forbes article on why the city of Fresno, Calif. and its surrounding Central Valley are so economically depressed: “Then there is the assault from the greenies. In Fresno’s surrounding counties, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment [a unit of the federally funded California Rural Legal Assistance — ed.] has used lawsuits to halt 125 new and expanded dairy projects since 1998, projects that would have increased the state’s milk cow population by a third.” (Lynn J. Cook, “Economic Death Valley”, Forbes, May 26). See also Larry Serpa, “Dairies can coexist with environment”, Visalia Times-Delta, Nov. 3-4, 2001; Michael Boccadoro, “Activist groups do more to cause poverty than cure it”, Dairy Business, Feb. 2002, both reprinted at DairyCares site. (DURABLE LINK)
May 20 — “A Grand Façade”. “[Few Americans] have any idea about what the grand jury is supposed to do and its day-to-day operation. That ignorance largely explains how some over-reaching prosecutors have been able to pervert the grand jury, whose original purpose was to check prosecutorial power, into an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of government and now runs roughshod over the constitutional rights of citizens.” (W. Thomas Dillard, Stephen R. Johnson, and Timothy Lynch, “A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government”, Cato Institute Policy Analysis #476, May 13 (executive summary; full paper in PDF format)) (DURABLE LINK)
May 19 — Sauce for the gander dept. Texas: “A major criticism of class-action lawsuits is that the public often gets nothing but coupons while their lawyers wind up with millions of dollars. If a proposed law makes it through the Legislature, the lawyers may be getting coupons, too. Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, is proposing that lawyers who win class-action suits get the same thing that their clients get. If half the award to the clients is in coupons and discounts, the lawyers will get half their fees in coupons and discounts, too.” (Terry Maxon, “Bill would give attorneys same class-action payout as clients”, Dallas Morning News, May 5)(via Houston Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse). (DURABLE LINK)
May 19 — “Lawyers spoil fun”. Georgia: “Families and kids who found summertime fun and enjoyment each year at the Krystal River Water Park in Evans will have to find somewhere else to cool off in the months ahead. The park is closing up shop because its liability insurance costs jumped from $8,000 a month to a whopping $58,000 a month. Customers couldn’t possibly afford to pay the higher admission price park owner Ken Edwards would have to charge to offset the 700-percent premium increase.” (Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, May 11). (DURABLE LINK)
May 19 — “Law firms in tobacco suit seek $1.2b more”. Massachusetts: “As Beacon Hill grapples with a fiscal crisis, the lawyers who worked on the state’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry are demanding the state now pay them an additional $1.25 billion in legal fees. In recent court filings, four law firms, led by Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels of Boston, asked a Superior Court judge to enforce a contract that called for the lawyers to be given 25 percent of whatever proceeds Massachusetts received in the case. … The lawyers’ push to obtain more of the tobacco funds [on top of the $775 million they have already been awarded] has roiled the legal community in Massachusetts and nationally, with some worrying that the case will reinforce an image of avarice that dogs trial lawyers.” (Frank Phillips, Boston Globe, May 4)(see Jan. 2-3, 2002). (DURABLE LINK)
May 16-18 — Go ahead and have your Oreos (for now). The San Francisco lawyer who announced that he was suing Kraft/Nabisco (see May 13) now says he’s dropping the action and “only wanted to get the word out about the dangers of unlabeled fats contained in the popular black and white cookies. …[‘]Now everybody knows about trans fat.’ He expressed no remorse for using California courts as a publicity tool.” (Ron Harris, “SF lawyer says he’s dropping suit against Oreo cookies”, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, May 14). Bloggers Brian Peterson (May 13) and Timothy Sandefur (May 14) have their doubts about whether it’s actually consistent with legal ethics to file lawsuits in search of free publicity for causes, while George Mason University law professor David Bernstein, an old friend and collaborator of ours who’s just launched his own law blog, notes that (like it or not) lawsuits are often extraordinarily effective as bids for attention (May 15, archives busted, scroll down). Meanwhile the New York Times, which ran an “Editorial Observer” commentary favorable to the McDonald’s obesity suit (see Feb. 19), chimes in with an article presenting the Oreo affair exclusively from the plaintiff’s point of view, with not a syllable of dissent or skepticism about the suit’s merits (Marian Burros, “A Suit Seeks to Bar Oreos as a Health Risk”, New York Times, May 14). On the other hand, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown rejoices that he’s “found a way to finance my children’s college education. … I don’t intend to quit until I’ve eaten all 45 cookies in the package.” (“In search of the lethal dose of Oreo cookies”, May 14). (DURABLE LINK)
May 16-18 — After California bounty-hunting scandal, lawyers win again. When people talk about the trial lawyers’ controlling the California legislature, this is the sort of thing they have in mind. For several months editorial and public opinion in the state has registered outrage at lawyers’ use of the state’s broad unfair-competition law to extort cash settlements from thousands of small-business owners (see Jan. 15, Mar. 3). But “The attorneys, to the utter surprise of no one, emerged as victors in a showdown hearing of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Voting largely along party lines, in what was clearly a scripted scenario, the committee killed three bills that would have imposed some reforms on the unfair competition law — UCL, as it’s called — and approved a lawyer-backed substitute that contains only superficial changes and, if enacted, would actually make it easier to collect money in UCL cases.” The committee passed “a measure written by the personal injury attorneys lobby, Consumer Attorneys of California, [which] in conjunction with another lawyer-written measure in the Senate, would impose very mild new requirements on attorneys filing UCL suits, but it would also add a provision, called ‘disgorgement,’ that would allow more money to be obtained from UCL defendants and thus increase plaintiffs’ leverage. Recent state Supreme Court decisions had barred ‘disgorgement’ in UCL suits.” (Dan Walters: “Democrats side with lawyers over small-business owners”, Sacramento Bee, May 9). (DURABLE LINK)
May 16-18 — “Suit Seeks to Keep Elephant at L.A. Zoo”. “A woman has filed suit to stop the Los Angeles Zoo from sending its female African elephant, Ruby, to the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, a move she said would break a longtime bond between the animal and a female Asian elephant, Gita.” (Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times, May 15) (see also SoCalLaw) (DURABLE LINK)
May 15 — Judge kicks class-action lawyers off case. “It was a stunning ruling by a federal judge exposing what she saw as lawyers trying to settle a big class-action lawsuit for their own benefit and with little regard for their clients. U.S. District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo last month booted six Chicago-area lawyers off a national class-action suit that accused H&R Block Inc. of cheating customers who took out tax-refund loans. In her ruling, she chastised the lawyers for doing little spadework to prove their case. The settlement fund was to be capped at $25 million for a potential class of 17 million people. The lawyers, whom she described as ‘inadequate,’ would have received $4.25 million.” (Ameet Sachdev, “Class-action reform pushed into spotlight”, Chicago Tribune, May 1; “Federal Judge in Illinois Rejects Settlement In Suit Against H&R Block Over Refund Loans”, BNA Class Action Litigation Report, Apr. 2; Mark Tatge, “A Pox on Both Houses”, Forbes, May 26). (DURABLE LINK)
May 14 — NTSB blames pilot error, but airport told to pay $10 million. “A Cook County jury awarded $10.45 million to the family of a pilot killed in 1996 when the executive jet he was at the controls of slid off the runway and burned at Palwaukee Municipal Airport. The pilot, Martin Koppie, 53, had been accused in earlier lawsuits of causing the crash that killed three other people.” The new verdict, on the other hand, throws $9.9 million worth of blame onto the municipalities of Wheeling and Prospect Heights, which own and operate the airport, for allegedly locating a drainage ditch too close to the runway. “In a 1998 report, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Koppie for not aborting the takeoff and co-pilot Whitener for not taking ‘sufficient remedial action.’ In 2001, a Cook County jury awarded $18.9 million to Whitener’s family, who had argued that Koppie caused the crash and Chicago-based Aon Corp. was responsible as his employer.” (Michael Higgins, “$10 million award in ’96 plane crash”, Chicago Tribune, May 7). (DURABLE LINK)
May 14 — “Prosecutor had ordeal as defendant”. An assistant Massachusetts attorney general gets caught up in charges of sexual harassment that mushroom into criminal charges before eventually collapsing, not before turning his life and reputation upside down. “Exculpatory evidence that surfaced during [Michael] Atleson’s trial, prosecutors now say, cast serious doubt on the credibility of his accusers.” Despite Atleson’s acquittal and the withdrawal of other charges against him, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley has no apologies: “The system worked for Mr. Atleson”, he claims. Read the story and see whether you agree (Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe, Apr. 14) (DURABLE LINK)
May 13 — Lawsuit’s demand: stop selling Oreos to kids. “Oreo cookies should be banned from sale to children in California, according to a lawsuit filed by a San Francisco attorney who claims that trans fat — the stuff that makes the chocolate cookies crisp and their filling creamy — is so dangerous children shouldn’t eat it. Stephen Joseph, who filed the suit against Nabisco last week in Marin County Superior Court,… [is a “public interest lawyer” who has also] formed a nonprofit corporation called BanTransFats.com, Inc.” (Kim Severson, “Lawsuit seeks to ban sale of Oreos to children in California”, San Francisco Chronicle, May 12). “Fast food restaurants are facing claims that hamburgers can be as addictive as heroin in the next twist to the obesity lawsuits that threaten McDonald’s and Burger King. John Banzhaf, the self-styled ‘legal terrorist’ who pioneered tobacco litigation in the 1960s,” contends that studies suggest that fat-laden food can produce the same sorts of changes in the brain as powerful drugs. (Simon English, “Burgers are ‘as bad as heroin’, activist claims”, Daily Telegraph (UK), May 9). More: Lance Gay, “Food industry balks at mandatory labeling”, Scripps Howard/Bremerton, Wash. Sun, May 9; “A Twinkie Tax”, CBS News, May 12. (& update May 16-18: suit dropped) (DURABLE LINK)
May 13 — Update: court installs valedictorian. “A high school student won sole rights to Moorestown High School’s valedictorian title Thursday when a judge ruled that she should not have to share the honor with two other students.” (see May 3-4) “U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson ordered the Moorestown district to name Blair L. Hornstine the valedictorian for the class of 2003.” (“Student Wins Valedictorian Lawsuit In Moorestown”, NBC10.com, May 9). Kimberly Swygert has a lot of commentary on the case at her No. 2 Pencil blog (May 9, May 2). (DURABLE LINK)
May 12 — Shouldn’t have let him get so drunk. Australia: “A Norlane man is suing Geelong Football Club for allowing him to get too drunk at a president’s lunch. …In Supreme Court documents seen by the Geelong Advertiser, Gregory Allan Clifford claims he consumed ‘excessive quantities of liquor’ supplied by the club at a president’s lunch about two years ago. Mr Clifford claims he fell down a set of stairs at the club function and severely injured himself. In the civil lawsuit against the club he claims the club should have exercised reasonable care to conduct the function in a way where people drinking were reasonably safe.” In a case that made considerable headway in the Australian courts before recently being dismissed, a woman sued a New South Wales rugby club for allegedly continuing to serve her alcohol although she was intoxicated; the “woman had claimed she was hit by a car while ‘wandering drunkenly’ 100 metres away from the club, the Supreme Court documents said.” (Natalie Staaks, “Cats sued”, Geelong Advertiser, May 8, no longer online) (via Brain Graze) (DURABLE LINK)
May 12 — Malpractice studies. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee publishes a new study finding that the medical malpractice litigation system performs poorly in both its major social roles: deterring medical negligence and fairly compensating the negligently injured. Reform including liability limits would offer substantial benefits that could include billions in annual budgetary savings to the federal fisc and improvements in medical care affordability that could permit millions of Americans to be priced back into the health insurance market. (Senior Economist Dan Miller, “Liability for Medical Malpractice: Issues and Evidence”, Joint Economic Committee, May (PDF format)). A similar study, focusing on Texas: Chris Patterson, Colleen Whalen and John Pisciotta, “Critical Condition”, Texas Public Policy Foundation, April (PDF format). In an April poll of Texas Medical Association members, nearly two-thirds of the 1,027 physicians responding “say the climate in which they practice medicine has forced them to deny or refer high-risk cases in the past two years.” (“Doctors forced to limit or deny patient care”, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston website, undated).
Although Massachusetts’s situation is not as bad as that as many other states, it is still seeing a departure of respected doctors from the liability-wracked field of obstetrics. “‘You start to think maybe this isn’t worth it,’ said Dr. Ronald Rubin, 41, of Shrewsbury, who gave up obstetrics after being sued and is now completing an anesthesia residency. ‘My case was dismissed, but I got deposed. It was six years of going back and forth and taking time off from work. It took a tremendous toll.'” (Liz Kowalczyk, “Insurance costs leave one less baby doctor”, Boston Globe, Apr. 27). And following a tripling of its insurance premiums, a 16-doctor radiologist practice in the Daytona Beach, Fla. area has announced that it intends to stop performing mammograms, which is particularly problematic since the practice currently performs the majority of the mammograms carried out in Volusia and Flagler counties. (“Radiologists say they’ll stop performing mammograms on June 1”, AP/Daytona Beach News-Journal, May 8)(see Nov. 2, 2000). (DURABLE LINK)
May 30-June 1 — “Judge Allows Lawyer to Add Shell Oil as Nightclub Fire Defendant”. Rhode Island: “Attorney Ronald Resmini, who sued for damages in federal court last month, said he added Shell Oil and its affiliate, Motiva Enterprises LLC, to his lawsuit because The Station nightclub owners distributed tickets to their club from a Shell gas station they owned. ‘They were giving away free tickets if you bought so much merchandise,’ Resmini said.” Lawyers’ quest for deep pockets has already resulted in the naming of brewer Anheuser-Busch and the town of West Warwick, among other defendants. (AP/MSNBC/7 News Boston, May 29). (DURABLE LINK)
May 30-June 1 — “Diet Drug Litigation Leads to Fat Fees”. “A federal judge in Philadelphia has awarded interim fees of more than $150 million to 83 plaintiffs’ law firms for their work in the massive fen-phen diet drug litigation that led to a $3.75 billion class action settlement. The interim fees are just a fraction of what the plaintiffs’ lawyers could ultimately earn, since it covers only work up to June 30, 2001. In their fee petition, the lawyers asked for $567 million.” (Shannon P. Duffy, The Legal Intelligencer, May 21)(see Sept. 27-29, 2002, and links from there). And, reports Texas Lawyer: “A group of Houston plaintiffs’ lawyers who were major players in fen-phen litigation in the late 1990s are now jumping into the ephedra arena and plan to use many of the tactics they learned in fen-phen suits in the new litigation.” Ephedra, an herbal remedy, promotes weight loss and energy but can have serious side effects. (Kelly Pedone, “Lessons Learned in Fen-Phen Suits Factor Into Ephedra Cases”, Texas Lawyer, Apr. 15)(see Sept. 10, 2001). (DURABLE LINK)
May 30-June 1 — “Buchanan & Press”. Viewers who tuned into the popular MSNBC debate show last night (Thurs.) saw our editor debate former ATLA president Barry Nace on the merits of Common Good’s “early offers” proposals for limiting lawyers’ contingency fees (see May 29) A full transcript is likely at some point to be posted here. (DURABLE LINK)
May 29 — Hold the gravy? Common Good, the reform organization headed by author Philip Howard, has launched a new campaign to limit the fees plaintiff’s lawyers can charge in cases that settle promptly. “The proposal would require plaintiffs’ attorneys to submit a notice of a planned lawsuit to defendants in contingency fee cases. If a settlement offer is made and accepted within 60 days of the notice, the attorney must charge an hourly rate that cannot exceed 10 percent of the settlement amount.” (Elizabeth Neff, “Plan Would Cap Contingency Fees”, Salt Lake Tribune, May 25). Petitions to this effect have been filed in recent weeks by lawyers working pro bono in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia. (Daniel Wise, “Attorney Fees in Personal Injury Cases Targeted”, New York Law Journal, May 8; Adam Liptak, “In 13 States, a Push to Limit Lawyers’ Fees”, New York Times, May 26). (DURABLE LINK)
May 29 — Decorating for reconciliation. Okay, for a change, here’s a vignette that made us think maybe there’s hope for the profession: “Though hardly sentimental in the courtroom, Ms. Gold-Bikin [divorce attorney Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin of Philadelphia’s Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen LLP] says she often urges settlement and, even, reconciliation…. Coupons for free marriage-counseling sessions are set out on the coffee table. … ‘I’m a divorce lawyer who believes in marriage. So I started collecting old wedding photos and licenses. Then I found that if I put them up around the office, clients would have to walk past them and, hopefully, think twice about what they were about to do. There are plenty of marriages we’re never going to save. But there are a lot we can work on. Many people who come here shouldn’t be getting divorced. They’re just stuck, and I hope this makes them reconsider.'” (Nancy D. Holt, “The rite of matrimony”, CareerJournal.com (WSJ), May 15; also appeared in Wall Street Journal, May 14, as the “Workspaces” column). (DURABLE LINK)
May 28 — Vitamin class action: some questions for the lawyers. Last month “appeal court justices in San Francisco did something unusual: They mailed out a letter asking lawyers in a massive vitamin price-fixing class action to explain a few things. Why, the 1st District Court of Appeal wanted to know, are so many law firms involved? How did the number of coordinated cases grow by 12 in one six-month period? How many out-of-state law firms are involved? Which of the defendants previously entered guilty or no contest pleas to criminal charges?” At least fifty class action law firms nationwide are hoping to split a $16 million fee pot, but Oakland, Calif. attorney Larry Schonbrun, the nation’s best-known objector to class actions, says there’s “no reason why much fewer law firms could not have handled this case”. And: “This is a money machine. It’s feeding at the trough.” (Mike McKee, “Enriching the Record”, The Recorder, May 27). (DURABLE LINK)
May 28 — “Sex, God and Greed”. Forbes on the priest scandals and the associated “litigation gold rush” which could leave the Roman Catholic Church facing $5 billion in payouts. “The lawyers who are winning settlements from Catholic dioceses are already casting about for the next targets: schools, government agencies, day care centers, police departments, Indian reservations, Hollywood. … The lawyers are lobbying states to lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases, letting them dredge up complaints that date back decades.” (Daniel Lyons, Forbes, Jun. 9). Sidebars: “Battle of the Shrinks” (role of recovered memory in some cases); “Heavenly Cash” (questionable claims). Our editor weighed in a couple of years ago on the practice of lifting statutes of limitation. (DURABLE LINK)
May 27 — “State is suing ex-dry cleaners”. California Attorney General Lockyer is suing retired owners of Mom-and-Pop dry cleaners in the town of Chico under the federal Superfund law, accusing them of pouring dry-cleaning chemicals down their drains decades ago. “Bob and Inez Heidinger — he’s 87, has Alzheimer’s disease and is blind in one eye; she’s 83, has bone marrow cancer and needs shoulder surgery” — are being sued for $1.5 million on charges (which they deny) of disposing of PCE in such a manner between 1952 and 1974, when they sold the business. Also being sued is “Paul Tullius, a 57-year-old retired Air Force pilot, and his wife, Vicki, who own a warehouse that last housed a dry cleaner in 1972 — 16 years before they bought the building without knowing its entire history.” “This is the most draconian law you could ever imagine,” says Tullius. “…Can you imagine what that does to your life? I’m sort of thinking this isn’t the country I thought it was.” (Gary Delsohn, Sacramento Bee, Apr. 28). (DURABLE LINK)
May 27 — Courtroom assault on drugmakers. A week or two ago the New York Times somewhat belatedly discovered that trial lawyers have ginned up a large amount of well-organized litigation against pharmaceutical makers over alleged side effects. (Alex Berenson, “Giant drug firms may face lawsuits”, New York Times/Oakland Tribune, May 18). Some reactions: Derek Lowe (“Because That’s Where the Money Is”, Corante, May 16), Ernie the Attorney (May 18), MedPundit (May 19), MedRants (May 19), William Murchison (“Lawyers Who Make You Sick”, syndicated/TownHall, May 20) (the last of these via SickofLawsuits.org, a new health-focused site associated with the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse tort reform groups). (DURABLE LINK)
May 24-26 — “‘Trial Lawyers Get Spanked'”. Our editor had an op-ed Friday in the Wall Street Journal celebrating the Florida appeals court’s striking down of the absurd $145 billion class action verdict in the Engle tobacco case. (Walter Olson, WSJ/ OpinionJournal.com, May 23). Other columns on the decision include Jacob Sullum, “Appealing Price”, syndicated/Reason.com, May 23, on the appeals bond issue; and George Will, “The States’ Tobacco Dilemma”, syndicated/Washington Post, May 23, on the hypocrisy of state governments. (DURABLE LINK)
May 24-26 — Hitting the jack-potty. “A city worker has hit the jack-potty. Cedrick Makara, 55, scored a $3 million jury verdict last week because he hurt his thumb trying to get out of the john of a Manhattan building where he works.” The building’s manager and owner are on the hook. The stall in question “had a missing doorknob. [Attorney Sheryl] Menkes said Makara reached his hand through a hole where the knob should have been and pulled the door toward him just as someone entering the bathroom pushed the door in,” causing him to injure tendons in his thumb and miss six months of work as a city claims examiner. (Helen Peterson, “He’s flush after $3M potty suit”, New York Daily News, May 21). More: Boots and Sabers comments on the case (May 25). (DURABLE LINK)
May 22-23 — Court overturns $145 billion Engle award. Not to say “we told you so” about yesterday’s Florida appellate decision reversing the tobacco-suit atrocity, but, well, we did tell you so back in 1999: “The smart money is betting last week’s Miami anti-tobacco jury verdict will be overturned on the issue of class certification — whether every sick Florida smoker should have been swept into a class suing cigarette makers despite vast differences among individuals on such issues as why they decided to smoke or quit.” We had more to say about the case, also in the Wall Street Journal, a year later (July 18, 2000), as well as on this site. The latest decision is on FindLaw in PDF format and a very fine decision it is indeed — if this keeps up, the Florida courts may start getting their reputation back (Manuel Roig-Franzia, “$145 Billion Award in Tobacco Case Voided”, Washington Post, May 21). (DURABLE LINK)
May 22-23 — Must be why the show has so many fans. Received recently from the publicity department at St. Martin’s Press, publisher of our editor’s latest book: “The Rule of Lawyers by Walter Olson will be a prop in the show, Sex and the City! It will be a prop in Miranda’s apt. thoughout the season. The pilot airs early June.” (DURABLE LINK)
May 21 — Update: McMahon’s mold claim worth $7 mil. “Entertainer Ed McMahon reaped a $7 million settlement from several companies he sued for allowing toxic mold to overrun his Los Angeles home and kill his beloved dog, a national mold litigation magazine reported”. (“McMahon Gets $7 Mln in Toxic Mold Lawsuit – Report”, Yahoo/Reuters, May 7)(see Apr. 25, 2002). Addendum: blogger Stu Greene writes, “I wonder if the Prize Patrol delivered one of those oversized novelty checks with balloons tied to it.” (May 21) (DURABLE LINK)
May 21 — Auto-lease liability: deeper into crisis. Honda has become the latest automaker to announce that it will stop leasing new cars to buyers in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island (see Mar. 12-14, 2003, Aug. 26, 2002). The problem is 1920s-era “vicarious liability” laws in those three states, fiercely guarded by the trial lawyer lobby, which expose leasing and rental car companies to unlimited personal injury claims when their customers get into accidents. Honda’s pullout follows withdrawals this spring by GM and Ford as well as by J.P. Morgan Chase, a major provider of auto financing in the Northeast. (“Industry report: Honda to stop leasing in 3 states”, Detroit Free Press, May 20 (scroll down); “American Honda Finance Corp. to Suspend All Leasing In Three States”, PR Newswire, May 19; “Auto lease fleece” (editorial), New York Daily News, Apr. 22 (scroll down); SaveLeasing.com; “Ford Blames Liability Law for Decision to Stop Leasing Cars in NY”, Insurance Journal, Apr. 7; Zubin Jelveh, “Leasing Companies Exit Left and Right”, Newsday, May 4). “More than $1.5 billion in such claims are pending in New York, said Elaine Litwer, legislative coordinator for the National Vehicle Leasing Association…. [Proponents of easing the law] received a big boost last month when the 75,000-member New York State Bar Association split from the trial lawyers and said the vicarious liability law was never meant to apply to leases and supported changes.” (Barbara Woller, “GMAC leaves New York’s auto leasing market”, Journal News (Gannett, Westchester County), May 1; John Caher, “State Bar, Trial Lawyers Part Ways on Tort Reform”, New York Law Journal, Apr. 8). More: Jun. 9, 2003; Sept. 5, 2004. (DURABLE LINK)
March 8-10 — Will EU silence the pipes? Some Scottish members of the European parliament are warning that new noise regulations could make it unlawful to play their nation’s musical instrument: lowering maximum noise levels to 87 decibels, as is being proposed, could “silence the bagpipes for the first time since Culloden”. “If this goes through then the Queen will have to be without her piper every morning who wakes her up at Buckingham Palace,” said Jim Banks, the head of the Piping Centre in Glasgow. “It is just daft.” An EU spokeswoman denied that the authorities in Brussels wished to suppress bagpipes, but a Tory MEP said the application of the rules to employment contexts could result in the end of professional pipe bands. Two years ago the British defense ministry announced that the din of military brass bands was in violation of job-safety noise limits (see Dec. 22, 2000) (Hamish Macdonell, “EU threat to noisy bagpipes”, The Scotsman, Mar. 6)(more on bagpipers in trouble: June 21, 2001).
March 8-10 — Inability to get along with co-workers. An assembly worker with bipolar disorder “fired in 1996 following a series of conflicts with her fellow employees and what court papers termed ‘her confrontational and irrational behavior’ with her supervisor” is entitled to sue her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act since the ability to interact or get along with others is “a major life activity”, a federal judge ruled in New York. The employer had responded to the woman’s lawsuit with a counterclaim against her, charging that her erratic and hostile behavior had cost it $500,000 in losses to its operations, but Judge Frederic Block suggested that its counterclaim was “in terrorem tactics” and “a naked form of retaliation” against “a vulnerable plaintiff who suffers from a significant mental impairment, for filing her lawsuit,” and suggested that he might impose sanctions on the company for so foolishly imagining that the accusation game might work in both directions. (Mark Hamblett, “Plaintiff With Bipolar Disorder Protected Under ADA”, New York Law Journal, March 4).
March 8-10 — Near and dear to their hearts. Florida trial lawyers are up in arms over the merest suggestion, from a committee on jury innovations, that it might be time to start rethinking their cherished right to kick prospective jurors off panels without offering reasons or explanations. Thomas Scarritt, chair of the Florida bar’s trial lawyers section, “called any discussion of eliminating peremptory challenges ‘a dangerous move.’ Scarritt told the [state supreme] court ‘that is a subject that is near and dear to the hearts of trial lawyers and we do not think there should be any change whatsoever.'” (Susan R. Miller, “Juror Power?”, Miami Daily Business Review, Feb. 6).
March 8-10 — Crestfallen at the news. “Obviously, we’re disappointed.” — Len Selfon, director of benefits programs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, on word that the Institute of Medicine had found no evidence that the herbicide Agent Orange, to which many veterans were exposed, has contributed to the risk of a form of leukemia in children (“Washington in Brief: Science Panel Retreats On Agent Orange Risks”, Washington Post, Feb. 28) (via Health Facts and Fears (American Council on Science and Health), March 5).
March 6-7 — Updates. Stories that kept on developing:
* “A judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday that claimed several video game and movie makers shared blame for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. … [Federal judge Lewis] Babcock said there was no way the makers of violent games and movies could have reasonably foreseen that their products would cause the Columbine shooting or any other violent acts. ‘Setting aside any personal distaste, as I must, it is manifest that there is social utility in expressive and imaginative forms of entertainment, even if they contain violence,’ Babcock wrote.” (“Columbine Family’s Lawsuit Against Video Game Makers Dismissed”, AP/Tampa Bay Online, Mar. 5)(see April 24, 2001).
* A Southwest Texas University student who bared her breasts at a wet T-shirt contest in Mexico over spring break 2000 has won a $5 million default judgment against the makers of a Wild Party Girls video who used the resulting topless picture of her in their promotions. She continues to pursue a lawsuit against the E! cable network for airing the “Too Hot for TV” ads with her image. (“Woman in ‘too hot for TV’ suit gets $5 million”, Cox/AZCentral, Feb. 27) (Update Apr. 15: default judgment thrown out). And the quest for a very private Mardi Gras continues as a Florida State University business major “has sued producers of the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos, claiming they invaded her privacy and used her image without permission. … [She] admits in her lawsuit that she was among the women on the streets and balconies of the French Quarter last year who removed their tops in exchange for Mardi Gras beads and trinkets.” (Janet McConnaughey, “Coed files suit over nude video”, AP/Polk County Online, Jan. 23)(see Sept. 28, 2001). At Metafilter, user “Mikewas” has some advice (Oct. 1) for how a defense lawyer might try such cases after first determining whether the local jury is of liberal or conservative leaning.
* ” In what is being described as a major victory for the so-called ‘visitability’ movement, two cities in disparate parts of the country [last month] started requiring all new homes to be accessible to the handicapped.” Besides the expected passage of such an ordinance in Naperville, Ill. (see Feb. 6), a new ordinance in Pima County, Arizona “includes the significant additional requirement of a zero-step entrance.” “I thought homes were for the owners,” says University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein. A suburban Chicago homebuilder says the added expense could run as high as $3,000 a house: “it’s real easy to spend somebody else’s money,” adds J. Mark Harrison, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Illinois. (“Activists Win New Rules Requiring Handicapped-Accessible Private Homes”, FoxNews.com, Feb. 10).
March 6-7 — Quest for deep pockets in Ga. crematory scandal. “But while relatives focus their anger on the Marshes, their lawyers have deeper pockets in mind — the funeral homes that sent bodies to Tri-State. The reason is simple: Funeral homes have more insurance. Lawyers know the Marshes’ assets are likely to be eaten up in criminal court defending Ray Brent Marsh, the man charged with theft by deception in the Tri-State case. That leaves the funeral homes, who carry multimillion-dollar liability policies.” (Duane D. Stanford, “Big bucks at stake as lawsuits hit funeral homes that sent bodies to Tri-State Crematory”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar. 3).
March 6-7 — Washington eyes your 401(k). At Reason Online, Mike Lynch explains why the Enron collapse doesn’t prove what members of Congress keep saying it does about the supposed laxity of pension regulation (“Political Returns”, April) (see Feb. 15).
March 6-7 — Dewey deserve that much? Dig deeper into your pockets, smokers: federal judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York “has awarded nearly $38 million in legal fees to New York-based Dewey Ballantine for representing Blue Cross and Blue Shield in a suit against the tobacco industry — more than twice the amount of a jury verdict in the case last year.” (Tom Perrotta, “Dewey Ballantine Given $38 Million Fee Award”, New York Law Journal, Mar. 1). (Update Oct. 23, 2004: New York high court derails award and underlying case.) And Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino has dropped his challenge of the $575 million in legal fees private lawyers got for representing the state of Louisiana in the national tobacco settlement. Terms were confidential; Ciolino said he is not receiving personal benefit from the deal. “When they signed on to represent the state, the lawyers from 13 different firms became Louisiana assistant attorneys general. The lawyers claimed they acted as independent contractors, not government employees.” (Marsha Shuler, “Tobacco fee challenge dropped”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Feb. 15).
March 5 — Scenes from a malpractice crisis. “In Las Vegas, more than 10% of the doctors are expected by summer to quit or relocate, plunging the city toward crisis. … In California — where juries hearing malpractice lawsuits are limited to maximum awards of $250,000 for pain and suffering — [ob/gyn Dr. Cheryl] Edwards’ insurance premium this year is $17,000 [it had been $150,000 when she practiced in Nevada]. Because of 1975 tort reform, doctors in California are largely unaffected by increasing insurance rates. But the situation is dire in states such as Nevada where there is no monetary cap.”
“Doctors in Oregon have been told to brace for ‘breathtaking’ increases in malpractice insurance premiums in coming weeks. … When the Oregon Supreme Court in 1999 rejected as unconstitutional a $500,000 lid on pain- and- suffering awards in malpractice cases, jury awards of $8 million, $10 million and $17 million swiftly followed. … The Arizona border town of Bisbee has lost its hospital maternity ward because four of the town’s six obstetricians can no longer afford to practice. … Both trauma centers in Wheeling, W.Va., have closed because their neurosurgeons couldn’t pay their new malpractice premiums. The trauma center at Abington Memorial Hospital outside Philadelphia faces closure next month as its doctors scramble to find affordable insurance.” (Tom Gorman, “Physicians Fold Under Malpractice Fee Burden”, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 4; also (same story) Boston Globe; Joelle Babula, “Malpractice Crisis: Trauma unit faces cuts”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Feb. 7). In Mississippi, where trial lawyers hold great sway in many courts and recently blocked tort reform in the state legislature, an 18-doctor group of emergency physicians in Hattiesburg two years ago “paid $140,000 for malpractice insurance. Last year, the premium went to $250,000. The next annual premium would be $437,500 or $475,000…” (“Cost to cover errors in ER to rise for doctors”, Hattiesburg American, Jan. 26). See also Geekemglory blog, Dec. 13. (DURABLE LINK)
March 5 — Case for declaring wars, cont’d. “The framers had good reason to separate the dangerous power to declare (and finance) war from the power to command the armed forces.” Unfortunately, Congress nowadays tends to abdicate its responsibility by delegating to the White House discretion on whether to institute hostilities. (Sheldon Richman, “Anything to declare?”, Foundation for Economic Education, Feb. 16) (see Sept. 13, 2001) (via Free-Market.Net).
March 5 — “Man awarded $60,000 for falling over barrier”. Australia: “A surfer who fell and injured his back when he stepped over a guard rail to urinate has been awarded more than [A]$60,000 in compensation. Paul Andrew Jackson was aged 35 when he crossed a bicycle bridge on the Pacific Highway at Kanahooka, in Wollongong South, and stepped over a barrier to relieve himself in what he thought was ground level bush.” (The Age (Melbourne), Mar. 4). Update Mar. 8-9, 2003: award overturned.
March 4 — 9/11: grab for the gems. Lawyers have sued large Manhattan jewel dealer STS Jewels Inc., the Tanzanian Mineral Dealers Association and other defendants, seeking to attach proceeds from the sale of the popular gemstone tanzanite on behalf of victims of Sept. 11 terror. Muslim radicals with links to Al-Qaeda are widely believed to have engaged in trading in the gem, which is extensively smuggled out of Tanzania, the East African country where it is mined. “Yesterday, representatives of STS and the Tanzanian Mineral Dealers Association vehemently denied any connection between their industry and al Qaeda. ‘My sympathies to the victims, but this is ridiculous,’ said STS owner Sunil Agrawal.” Among lawyers involved in filing the action are Texas asbestos lawyer Mark Lanier, corporate defense lawyer Paul Hanly and celebrity lawyer Ed Hayes. (Jerry Markon, “Tanzanite Dealers Named in Suit Brought by the Families of Victims”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15 (online subscribers only)). See also Ralph R. Reiland, “Lawyers Lust for 9-11 Gold” (The American Enterprise, Feb. 18). And a great Stuart Taylor, Jr. column from January that we somehow missed back then: “How 9/11 Shines a Spotlight on Litigation Lottery”, (National Journal/The Atlantic, Jan. 8).
March 4 — No reply. Lawyers from Jacoby & Meyers have filed a class action suit against online payments firm PayPal alleging all manner of atrocities in its customer service. “PayPal’s spokesman said he could not comment on the suit because his company is in the midst of a [legally mandated] post-IPO [initial public offering] quiet period.” You get to accuse them, and they can’t answer back — isn’t it fun being a lawyer? (Cheryl Meyer, “Class Action Filed Against PayPal”, The Deal, Feb. 25).
March 4 — A menace in principle. Under a law that took effect in New Hampshire last year, police are required to arrest and hold until arraignment anyone accused of violating a domestic protective order. So when a woman in the town of Farmington charged her estranged husband with placing harassing phone calls, they had to haul him in, even after a visit to his house revealed that he is blind, uses a wheelchair, and is on dialysis, leaving him not much of a credible threat to anybody. “Police had to wait three hours for an ambulance to bring [him] to the jail, but the jail wouldn’t hold him because of potential liability.” (“State domestic violence law puts police in bind”, AP/Manchester Union-Leader, Feb. 25) (via Free-Market.Net).
March 1-3 — Should have arrested him faster. “A convicted sex offender wanted in Florida who fled into the Maine woods from police is complaining that he got frostbite and lost a few toes because he wasn’t arrested fast enough. Harvey Taylor, 48, who spent at least three nights in the woods in Mattawamkeag after running from a Penobscot County Sheriff’s detective a few weeks ago, is threatening to sue the detective for not arresting him promptly.” (Mary Anne Lagasse, Flight from law leads to frostbite, threat of lawsuit”, Bangor Daily News, Feb. 27).
March 1-3 — Too much Nintendo. “A Louisiana woman is suing Nintendo, alleging her 30-year-old son suffered seizures after playing video games for eight hours a day, six days a week.” (AP/Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 24; Brett Barrouquere, “Woman sues Nintendo in death of her son, 30”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Feb. 23).
March 1-3 — Batch of reader letters. We’ve fallen far behind both on posting reader letters and in answering our mail (and unfortunately we can’t answer all of it). Still, we’ve managed to put up a batch of letters from the closing weeks of last year. Topics include safe deposit boxes at the WTC, a federal judge’s decision striking down high school sports schedules that put boys’ and girls’ sports in different seasons, and discrimination against motorcyclists.
March 1-3 — Entitled to jobs that kill? On Wednesday the Supreme Court heard argument on the case of Echabazal vs. Chevron, which poses the question: “Does the Americans with Disabilities Act force employers to hire disabled workers for a job, even when the position could cause injury or death to the worker?” The Bush administration and business groups are trying to advance what turns out to be the controversial proposition that “employers have an interest in keeping their employees from being hurt or killed.” (Michael Kirkland, “Are disabled entitled to jobs that kill?”, UPI, Feb. 27; Warren Richey, “Can a disabled worker put himself at risk?”, Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 27; Marcia Coyle, “Rejecting a Worker”, National Law Journal, Feb. 26)(see Nov. 5, 2001). Update: Court unanimously rules for defense (see Jun. 19-20, 2002).
March 1-3 — Launder mania. Rushed through Congress in the weeks after Sept. 11, the USA Patriot Act “requires every financial institution — not just traditional banks — to monitor and to report suspicious customers to federal officials.” The paperwork and compliance burdens will be enormous, but there is little assurance that the program will make much difference in preventing terrorism, which tends to be accomplished on relatively small budgets. (Krysten Crawford, “On the Home Front”, Corporate Counsel, Jan. 22) (see Nov. 29, 2001).
March 1-3 — Welcome Boortz.com listeners. Popular Atlanta-based broadcaster Neal Boortz calls this site “one of my frequent stops” in researching his show (Feb. 27). He sure does have a lot of listeners — our traffic on Wednesday, when he did a segment paying us this tribute and endorsing loser-pays, was among the best ever.
Another noteworthy bit from his commentary: “Day after day people file lawsuits just to ‘see if we can get the other side to pay something.’ I’ve been there, folks. I’ve seen it. I was a member of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and the American Association of Trial Lawyers. I went to the conventions. I sat in the meetings. I participated in those discussions where lawyers would say ‘I know we don’t have a case — but maybe they would rather fork over a hundred thousand or so rather than taking the chance of going to trial. Hell, their expenses alone would be more than we’re asking!'”.
March 20-21 — No more restaurant doggie bags. In Australia, the restaurant doggie bag is in decline because of fears that patrons will store food at improper temperatures, allowing the growth of food-poisoning bacteria. “The Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, which has 142 hotel restaurants across the country, has banned patrons from taking home leftovers. Victoria has already brought in anti-doggie-bag legislation, with other states tipped to follow before the end of the year, Mr Deakin said. ‘If we are the cooker of the food we are liable,’ he said.” (“Restaurants ban doggie bags”, The Advertiser (Adelaide), Mar. 18). Meanwhile, in the U.K.: “Some restaurants in Britain are forcing customers who like their meat rare to sign a disclaimer form before eating due to fears of the risk of E. coli and salmonella poisoning, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.” (“British Eaters Who Like Rare Meat Sign Disclaimers”, Reuters/Yahoo, Mar. 18).
March 20-21 — “School told to rehire cocaine abuser”. Florida: “Escambia County Schools must rehire a school employee who reported to work with cocaine in his system – 50 times above the cutoff level for a positive drug test. Robert K. Sites III, 37, initially was terminated after arriving at Brentwood Middle School on Aug. 10 in an agitated and nervous state. A ‘reasonable suspicion’ drug test revealed cocaine metabolites in his system. An independent arbitrator ruled this month that a penalty less severe than termination was warranted and wants Sites rehired with full pay and benefits.” (Lisa Osburn, Pensacola News Journal, Mar. 15). Under zero tolerance rules, of course, schools can suspend or even expel a student for possessing aspirin or other ordinary over-the-counter drugs.
March 20-21 — Lawyer: deep-pocket defendants are real culprits in identity theft. Perpetrators of the fast-growing crime of “identity theft” sometimes use fraud, stealth or dumpster-diving to obtain data on potential victims from businesses in the form of credit card or employment data. “Companies that contribute to identity theft by failing to protect their customers’ and employees’ Social Security numbers and other personal information could be held liable, some observers warn. Although relatively few cases of this type have been filed so far, some observers predict that with the incidence of identity theft rising, more frustrated victims will successfully sue companies that fail to protect this information … Sean B. Hoar, Eugene, Ore.-based assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon, said he has spoken to groups of plaintiffs attorneys on the topic and the reaction has been ‘My gosh, this is a huge new area for civil litigation because of the likely liability that will be incurred.’ ‘I think that victims of identity theft are becoming much more cognizant of the fact that they have been hurt more by the negligent or careless acts of the companies than they are by the criminals,’ said Mari Frank, a Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based attorney who has specialized in the area of identity theft since she became a victim herself in 1996.” (Judy Greenwald, “ID theft suits in the cards”, Business Insurance, Mar. 4, subscriber-based site).
March 20-21 — McElroy on wrongful life suits. FoxNews.com columnist Wendy McElroy surveys the burgeoning field of “wrongful life” and “wrongful birth” suits following “the birth of a disabled child whom the mother would have aborted had she received adequate medical information.” The concept has been familiar in American courts for years and has cropped up in France and Australia recently as well. “The human cost of this new litigation is terrible. Parents publicly tell a child that they wish he or she had never been born.” (Wendy McElroy, “Parents Sue Doctors for ‘Wrongful Birth’ of Disabled Child”, FoxNews.com, Mar. 19)(see Aug. 22, 2001).
March 19 — Teen beauty pageant lands in court. In suburban Detroit, the outcome of this year’s Miss Teen St. Clair Shores beauty pageant was tainted, according to parent Barbara Scheurman’s legal complaint on behalf of her 15-year-old daughter Jennifer, which is expected to reach a local court next month. The controversy concerns whether the winning contestant should have been allowed to redo her talent presentation; a $200 savings bond and crown was the prize. (Tony Scotta, “Shores pageant judge defends her ruling”, Macomb Daily, Mar. 13).
March 19 — So depressed he stole $300K. Minnesota prosecutors are charging appeals court judge Roland Amundson, 52, who has resigned from the bench, with stealing more than $300,000 from a trust fund that a father had left for his developmentally disabled daughter. The judge’s attorney, Ron Meshbesher, said his client plans to plead guilty and “attributed Amundson’s actions to depression that followed his mother’s death”. According to prosecutors, however, his honor was not too depressed to put part of the money to use “to buy bronze statues, marble flooring, antique chairs and other items for himself.” (Pam Louwagie and Randy Furst, “Judge charged with stealing $300,000 from woman’s trust”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 27; Elizabeth Stawicki, “Court’s credibility damaged by Amundson, judges say”, Minnesota Public Radio, Mar. 11). Update July 1-2: sentenced to 69 months. (DURABLE LINK)
March 19 — “Bad movie, bad public policy”. Among reasons to skip the Denzel Washington vehicle John Q: “at the end of the movie, we see real footage of Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson advocating for expanded federal health insurance. Last time I checked, though, countries with government-run health plans were less likely to give dying kids organ transplants, or the powerful drugs needed to keep their bodies from rejecting the new organs after the operation.” (Robert Goldberg (Manhattan Institute), “Painful John Q“, National Review Online, Mar. 8).
March 18 — Injured in “human hockey puck” stunt. “An Avon man has sued the Colorado Avalanche hockey team for negligence, claiming he was seriously injured during a ‘human hockey puck’ event Dec. 13, 2000, at the Pepsi Center. Ryan Netzer claims that during one of the intermissions, he was selected to take part in the event, in which he was slung by a bungee cord across the ice rink on a metal sled, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Denver District Court.” Joseph Bloch, Netzer’s lawyer, says the organizers omitted protective padding that was supposed to be on boards into which his client slammed, suffering two leg fractures. “Prior to the event, Netzer signed a waiver.” (Howard Pankratz, “Fan sues Avalanche over stunt injuries”, Denver Post, Mar. 15).
March 18 — Couldn’t order 7-Up in French. “A federal government employee is suing Air Canada for more than $500,000 because he could not order a 7-Up in French.” Michel Thibodeau, 34, has already won a favorable determination from the Commissioner of Official Languages over the incident on an Aug. 14, 2000 flight from Montreal to Ottawa which resulted in an altercation after Mr. Thibodeau, “who is fluently bilingual, was unable to use French to order a 7-Up”. He wants $525,000 and an apology. “‘I am not asking for a right here, I am exercising a right I already have,’ Mr. Thibodeau said shortly after filing his lawsuit.” (Ron Corbett, “Air Canada sued over language dispute”, Ottawa Citizen/National Post, Mar. 2).
March 18 — Columnist-fest. Perennial-favorite scribes come through for readers again:
* Those consumer-battering steel import quotas are just temporary, says President Bush, and if you believe that … (Steve Chapman, “Relief from imports, for as long as it takes”, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14);
* Airport security checking is a “ridiculous charade” because of officialdom’s continued pretense that “the 80-year-old Irish nun, the Hispanic mother of two, the Japanese-American businessman, the House committee chairman with the titanium hip” are all just as likely hijacker candidates as the young Middle Eastern man (Charles Krauthammer, “The Case for Profiling”, Time, Mar. 18; see also “Profiles in Timidity” (editorial), Wall Street Journal, OpinionJournal.com, Jan. 25);
* Dave Kopel says the abusive municipal gun lawsuits have served to galvanize a firearms industry that has historically shied away from politics: “Pearl Harbor day for the gun industry was the day that [New Orleans mayor] Marc Morial filed his lawsuit”. (“Unintended Consequences”, National Review Online, Mar. 6). See also Jacob Sullum, “Too many guns?”, Reason Online, Jan. 4 (on “oversupply” gun-suit theories).
March 15-17 — Texas docs plan walkout. More than 600 physicians in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are planning to walk off the job April 8 to protest the state’s malpractice climate (Juan Ozuna, “‘Walkout’ Planned by Physicians”, McAllen Monitor, Feb. 16; Mel Huff, “Doctors discuss fallout from lawsuit abuse”, Brownsville Herald, Feb. 21; “The Doctor is Out”, McAllen Monitor, Feb. 19; “Sick system”(editorial), Brownsville Herald, Feb. 22). In famously litigious Beaumont, only one neurosurgeon is left practicing, which Texas Medical Association vice president Kim Ross calls “a scary thing … What if a patient has a car wreck, needs a neurosurgeon, and there’s none available? It’s an hour to Houston. That ‘golden hour’ [when treatment is most beneficial] is lost.” (Vicki Lankarge, “Soaring malpractice premiums bleed doctors, rob consumers”, reprinted by Heartland Institute, Jan.) “Channel-surf wherever you will; sooner or later (probably sooner) you’ll encounter an attorney urging you to bring your problems to him or her. Some are shameless in their opportunism: Have you suffered from respiratory problems? Throat inflammation? Sinus woes? Come see me; let’s find somebody to sue.” More than half of Texas physicians had claims filed against them in 2000, the Dallas Morning News has found. (“Litigation explosion plagues physicians” (editorial), Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Jan. 24 (via CALA Houston)).
March 15-17 — “Before you cheer … ‘Sign here'”. There are few things that trial lawyers loathe with more passion than the liability waivers that schools have parents and students sign before going out for extracurricular activities such as field trips or cheerleading. They’re carrying on a state-by-state campaign to get courts to strike down such waivers, voluntarily entered or not. (Mark Clayton, Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 12).
March 15-17 — “Politicians’ Syllogism”.
“Step One: We must do something;
“Step Two: This is something;
“Step Three: Therefore we must do it.”
— Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay in the British television series “Yes, Minister” (via Prog Review; site on show; Hugh Davies, “Celebrities and friends say fond farewell to Sir Nigel”, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 10 (memorial for show star Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who died Dec. 26)).
March 13-14 — “Greedy or Just Green?”. “In the last few days of December, Kamran Ghalchi sent more than 3,000 California businesses an unwelcome holiday greeting — legal notices claiming they were in violation of Proposition 65, a one-of-a-kind California law requiring warnings on products that contain potentially dangerous chemicals. More than half of Ghalchi’s December notices were filed against car dealers and other automotive businesses throughout the state. Warnings at gas stations are a familiar sight to Californians, but car dealers do not warn customers that buying a car could expose them to oil, gasoline and car exhaust. In a letter offering to settle with one dealer, Ghalchi demands $7,500 to settle right away: $750 of it in fines to the attorney general, the rest split evenly between Ghalchi and Citizens for Responsible Business, a new Proposition 65 enforcement group that is the plaintiff in all of Ghalchi’s December filings.”
Recent figures from Sacramento indicate that of “citizen suit” settlements by companies for failing to post Prop 65 warnings, less than eight percent of payouts go to the state, while two-thirds go to plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and costs, and much of the remainder to freelance enforcement groups that work with the lawyers. Even California attorney general Bill Lockyer, no friend of business, detects “an odor of extortion around many of these notices that concerns me'”. (Bob Van Voris, National Law Journal, Feb. 26).
March 13-14 — U.K. soldiers’ claim: brass didn’t warn of war trauma. In Great Britain, a high court lawsuit accuses the Ministry of Defence of “failing to adequately prepare service personnel for their inevitable exposure to the horrors of war”. Nearly 2,000 potential claimants have registered an interest in the action, which seeks to recover for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Queen’s Counsel Stephen Irwin, arguing on their behalf. “Mr. Irwin said that the case was ‘enormous’, would take a very long time and would cost a ‘great deal of money'”. (“MoD sued over trauma from ‘horrors of war'”, London Times, Mar. 4; Joshua Rozenberg, “2,000 sue MoD over psychiatric injuries of war”, Daily Telegraph, Mar. 5)(see also “Britain’s delicate soldiery”, Dec. 22, 2000).
March 13-14 — Education reforms could serve as basis for new suits. “Robin Hood” lawsuits prevailing on courts to order equalization of spending between rich and poor public school districts have been a dismal failure even on their own terms, undermining local taxpayers’ willingness to shoulder property tax burdens. But undaunted by previous fiascos, activist education lawyers figure the answer is yet more litigation: they’re hoping to latch onto new federal mandates for uniform test scores as the basis for a renewed round of lawsuits arguing that underperforming schools have a constitutional right to more money. (Siobhan Gorman, “Can’t Beat ‘Em? Sue ‘Em!”, Washington Monthly, Dec. 2001).
March 13-14 — I’ve got a legally protected bunch of coconuts. “A Slidell businessman who painted 150 green-and-white coconuts to pass out at the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade got a visit Thursday from a business partner of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which has been tossing gilded and glittery coconuts on Mardi Gras for decades. ‘The guy told me that as soon as I put paint on a coconut, I was infringing on their copyright,’ said Ronnie Dunaway, who owns Dunaway’s Olde Towne Market. ‘I was absolutely dumbfounded that there were laws about what you can and can’t do with a coconut.'” (Paul Rioux, “Zulu partners clamp down on copy-cat coconuts “, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mar. 8).
March 12 — Texas trial lawyers back GOP PAC. Sneaky? In Houston, plaintiff’s lawyers traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party are funding a “Harris County GOP PAC” which has endorsed candidates in today’s Republican primary for Supreme Court, Congress, the state legislature, and county attorney. Though unaffiliated with the official Republican organization, the PAC has sent voters a slickly produced brochure whose “logo even mimics the official logo of the Harris County Republican Party, which features an elephant inside of a star”. (“Harris County GOP PAC funded by plaintiff’s lawyers”, Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston, undated March; John Williams, “Republicans want distance from PAC”, Houston Chronicle, Mar. 7).
March 12 — Liability concerns fell giant sequoia. “The Sonora Union High School District, owner of the property, had been concerned about liability if the 85-foot-tall tree fell on its own.” (Melanie Turner, “Giant sequoia felled despite legal wrangling”, Modesto Bee, Feb. 23) (via MaxPower blog, Feb. 17).
March 12 — A “Jenny Jones Show” question. Why do ads for injury lawyers so often air on the same TV shows as debt-restructuring ads aimed at viewers desperate for financial relief? — wonders blogger Patrick Ruffini (March 8).
March 11 — Fast-food roundup. The Chicago Tribune is reporting that McDonald’s Corp. is on the verge of settling lawsuits brought on behalf of vegetarians over its use of beef extract as a flavoring agent for French fries; the terms include “$10 million to charities that support vegetarianism and $2.4 million to plaintiffs’ attorneys.” Yum! (Ameet Sachdev, “McDonald’s nears deal on fries suit”, Chicago Tribune, March 7; AP/Fox News, Mar. 9; see May 4, 2001, and Rediff.com coverage: May 4, May 8, July 3, 2001). Public health activists are taking aim at the food industry’s sinister ploy of providing customers with big portions, in a contrast with the inflationary 1970s when activists denounced the same companies’ shock-horror practice of shrinking the size of the candy bar or taco (Randy Dotinga, “Super-Size Portion Causing U.S. Distortion”, HealthScoutNews/ Yahoo, Feb. 19). Whatever happened to the old notion of “leave some on the plate for Miss Manners”, anyway? On EnterStageRight.com, Steven Martinovich analyzes the next-tobacco-izing of snack food, quoting our editor on the subject (“The next moral crusade”, Feb. 25). Also see accounts on ConsumerFreedom.com: Jan. 24, Jan. 30, Feb. 5. And a lefty commentator for a British newspaper has concluded that our battle with the waistline is really all capitalism’s fault: Will Hutton, “Fat is a capitalist issue”, The Observer, Jan. 27.
March 11 — Parole board’s consideration of drug history could violate ADA. In a case filed by inmates at the state prison in Vacaville, Calif., a Ninth Circuit panel has ruled that parole boards may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act if they regard a prisoner’s history of drug addiction as a reason to accord any less favorable disposition to his request to be turned loose early, such history counting as a disability protected under the law. Sara Norman, a lawyer for the inmates, said the ruling “might also apply to those suffering mental disabilities covered by the ADA. … The panel also suggested that the ADA covers a panoply of law enforcement decision making, including arrests.” The case “could lead to a swell of court challenges”. (Jason Hoppin, “ADA Applies to Decisions About Parole, Says 9th Circuit”, The Recorder, Mar. 11).
March 11 — Editorial-fest. Sense is breaking out all over: “The government’s impulsive entrance into the victim-compensation business was born of a one-time mix of compassion and political expediency, but it sets an unaffordable precedent at a time when the nation faces the likelihood of more terrorist acts.” (“Why Is One Terrorism Victim Different from Another?” (editorial) USA Today, Mar. 8). The Washington Post, which has helped lead the case for reform of nationwide class action procedures, is back with another strong editorial on the subject (“Restoring class to class actions”, Mar. 9). And following the lead of its sister Fortune (see Feb. 18-19), Time is out with a piece asking why workers themselves should put up with the widespread abuse of asbestos litigation (“The Asbestos Pit”, Mar. 11).
March 29-31 — British judge rejects hot-drink suits. U.K. lawyers had hoped to replicate the success of the celebrated American case in which a jury voted Stella Liebeck $2.7 million (later reduced to just under $500,000, and settled out of court) after she spilled coffee in her lap. However, on Mar. 27 High Court Justice Richard Field ruled against lawsuits by 36 patrons whose lawyers had claimed that the burger chain failed to warn of risks of scalding, “served drinks that were too hot, [or] used inadequate cups … ‘I am quite satisfied that McDonald’s was entitled to assume that the consumer would know that the drink was hot and there are numerous commonplace ways of speeding up cooling, such as stirring and blowing,’ the judge said.” (“British Judge Rules McDonald’s Not Liable for Hot Drinks That Scald”, AP/TBO, Mar. 28; “Judge rules against McDonald’s scalding victims”, Daily Telegraph, Mar. 27).
March 29-31 — Florida’s ADA filing mills grind away. The clutch of Miami lawyers who’ve been making a tidy living filing disabled-accommodation claims against local entrepreneurs are moving their way up into central Florida, where they are suing tourist businesses along interstate corridors, reports the St. Petersburg Times (see July 20, 2001 and links from there). One motel owner hit with a complaint has agreed to pay off the plaintiff lawyer’s hefty “fee” in installments, but can’t tell a reporter how big it is, because as part of the settlement he is forbidden to disclose the amount. (“Big winners in disabled crusade? Lawyers”, St. Petersburg Times, Mar. 24).
March 29-31 — The lawyers who invented spam. “On April 12, 1994, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, two immigration lawyers from Arizona, flooded the Internet with a mass mailing promoting their law firm’s advisory services.” Widely reviled at the time, Canter is still quite unapologetic: “Yes, we generated a lot of business. The best I can recall we probably made somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000 related to that — which wasn’t remarkable in itself, except that the cost of doing it was negligible.” (Sharael Feist, “Spam creator tackles the meaty issue”, ZDNet News, Mar. 26).
March 27-28 — Judge orders woman to stop smoking at home. In Utica, N.Y., Justice Robert Julian has ordered Johnita DeMatteo, if she wants to continue visitation rights with her 13-year-old son, to stop smoking in her home or car, even in the boy’s absence. “While similar rulings have been made in cases where children are in poor health, Julian’s ruling is apparently the first involving a healthy child who is not allergic to smoke” or suffer from a condition like asthma that would be worsened by it. (Dareh Gregorian, “Judge Bars Mom from Smoking”, New York Post, Mar. 26; Samuel Maull, “Judge Imposes Smoking Ban on Mother”, AP/Washington Post, Mar. 25)(see Oct. 5 and Nov. 26, 2001). Following the publication of a new study suggesting the possibility of a link between smoking and sudden infant death syndrome, anti-smoking activists are excited to think they may now have the leverage needed to obtain legal measures against smoking by parents in homes. “Ms. [Gail] Vandermeulen of [Ontario] Children’s Aid said attempts to curb smoking in the home have so far proved unworkable. In 1999, for example, the association drew up a policy trying to keep foster parents from smoking. ‘It caused quite a controversy; people felt they had a right to do what they want to do in their own homes,’ Ms. Vandermeulen said. (Carolyn Abraham, “Secondhand smoke linked to SIDS”, Toronto Globe & Mail, Feb. 21). And anti-smoking activists, in a report financed by the government of California, are demanding that an “R” rating be attached to movies in which anyone smokes, putting Golden Age Hollywood films off limits to the underage set unless they drag an adult to the theater with them (“Anti-smoking groups call for movie ratings to factor in tobacco”, Hollywood Reporter, Mar. 12; “The Marlboro woman” (editorial), The Oregonian, Jan. 28 (Univ. of Calif.’s Stanton Glantz)). (DURABLE LINK)
March 27-28 — “The American Way”. Thanks to James Taranto at WSJ “Best of the Web” (Mar. 26) for this pairing of quotes:
* “They evil ones didn’t know who they were attacking. They thought we would … roll over. They thought we were so materialistic and self-absorbed that we wouldn’t respond. They probably thought we were going to sue them.” — President George W. Bush, Mar. 21.
* “Whether or not we invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, let’s go about this the American way. Let’s sue him.”– Nicholas Kristof, New York Times (reg), Mar. 26.
March 27-28 — Reparations suits: so rude to call them extortion. What happened on Wall Street when the first three major U.S. companies were named in lawsuits demanding reparations for slavery? “In afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading, Aetna shares were up 44 cents at $37.78, CSX shares were up 66 cents at 37.55, and FleetBoston shares were up 24 cents at $35.38.” Should we interpret that as a recognition of the frivolous nature of the suits, or as investors’ vote of sympathy for the first extortion targets among many more to come? (Christian Wiessner, “Reparations Sought From U.S. Firms for Slavery”, Reuters/Yahoo, Mar. 26; “Suit seeks billions in slave reparations”, CNN, Mar. 26; text of complaint in PDF format, courtesy FindLaw; James Cox, “Aetna, CSX, FleetBoston face slave reparations suit”, USA Today, Mar. 24). Reparations activists are shrewdly structuring their meritless suits as guilt-seeking missiles, aimed at corporations nervous about their image and, coming up, the juiciest target of all: elite colleges and universities. At Princeton, for example, an early president of the college was recorded as owning two slaves at his death, and “numerous trustees and antebellum-era graduates owned slaves.” Reason enough to expropriate Old Nassau — get out your wallets, alums. (Andrew Bosse, “Reparations scholars may name University in lawsuit”, Daily Princetonian, Mar. 12; Alex P. Kellogg, “Slavery’s Legacy Seen in the Ivory Tower and Elsewhere”. Africana.com, Aug. 28, 2001) (see Feb. 22).
“It’s never about money,” lawyer Alexander Pires of the Reparations Coordinating Committee said last month. (Michael Tremoglie, “Reparations — ‘It’s Never About Money'”, FrontPage, March 4). “To me it’s not fundamentally about the money,” said radical Columbia scholar Manning Marable, who is also helping the reparations effort. (Kelley Vlahos Beaucar, “Lawsuit Chases Companies Tied to Slavery”, FoxNews.com, Mar. 25). Translation: it’s about the money. And next time you are inclined to be overawed by the reputation of Harvard Law School, consider that an ornament of its faculty, Prof. Charles Ogletree, not only is a key adviser to the reparations team but also co-chairs the presidential exploration committee of buffoon/spoiler candidate Al Sharpton, whose name will be forever linked with that of defamation victim Steven Pagones (see Dec. 29, 2000). (Seth Gitell, “Al Sharpton for president?”, Boston Phoenix, Feb. 28 – Mar. 7). (DURABLE LINK)
March 27-28 — Why your insurance rates go up. To the Colorado Court of Appeals, it makes perfect sense to make an auto insurer pay for a sexual assault that took place in a car. (Howard Pankratz, “Court: Attack in car insured”, Denver Post, Mar. 15). Update Oct. 15, 2003: state’s Supreme Court reverses by 4-3 margin.
March 25-26 — Web speech roundup. The famously litigious Church of Scientology has had some success knocking a major anti-Scientology site off the Google search engine (the offshore Xenu.net, “Operation Clambake”) by informing Google’s operators that the site violates copyrighted church material under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. (Declan McCullagh, Google Yanks Anti-Church Sites”, Wired News, Mar. 21; “Google Restores Church Links”, Mar. 22; John Hiler, “Church v Google, round 2”, Microcontent News, Mar. 22) (via Instapundit)(see Mar. 19, 2001). The National Drug Intelligence Center, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, acknowledged in December that it monitors more than 50 privately operated websites that provide information about illegal drugs. In a report, the Center warned that many such sites include material “glamorizing” such substances or are “operated by drug legalization groups” with an aim to “increase pressure on lawmakers to change or abolish drug control laws.” Yes, it’s called “speech” to you, buddy (Brad King, “DOJ’s Dot-Narc Rave Strategy”, Wired News, Mar. 13; “Government Admits Spying on Drug Reformers”, Alchemind Society, Mar. 15; National Drug Intelligence Center, “Drugs and the Internet”, Dec. 2001; more on what DoJ calls “offending” websites).
Companies continue to wield threats of litigation with success against individuals who criticize them on investor and other message boards: “Dan Whatley …lost a $450,000 defamation lawsuit for statements he had made about a company called Xybernaut on an Internet message board. He said he didn’t even know the suit existed.” (Jeffrey Benner, “Online Company-Flamers: Beware”, Wired News, Mar. 1). The Texas Republican Party recently threatened legal action against a parody website aimed at calling attention GOP links to the failed Enron Corp., but succeeded only in giving the site’s operators far more publicity than they could have gotten in any other way (Eric Sinrod (Duane Morris), “E-Legal: Republican Party of Texas Goes After Enron Parody Web Site”, Law.com, Mar. 5). The Canadian government has demanded that pro-tobacco website Forces Canada cease using a version of the national flag’s maple leaf (which turns out to be a trademarked logo) as a design feature, claiming it could confuse viewers into thinking the site is officially sanctioned (Joseph Brean, “Take Canadian flag off Web site, government tells smokers’ group”, National Post, Jan. 30). And the Electronic Frontier Foundation along with law school clinics at Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of San Francisco have launched the new Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, aimed at assisting site owners worried about being accused of violating copyrights or trademarks. It includes special sections devoted to fan sites, poster anonymity and other issues, and publishes examples of lawyers’ letters commanding site owners to cease and desist, popularly known as nastygrams. (Gwendolyn Mariano, “Site reads Web surfers their rights”, Yahoo/CNet, Feb. 26). (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-26 — La. officials seek oyster judge recusal. “The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources is asking a state district judge to remove himself from hearing oyster lease damage cases because he has already awarded a former client and the client’s family almost $110 million from two previous cases. Monday, state District Judge Manny Fernandez is set to begin hearing more lawsuits claiming the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion damaged oyster leases in St. Bernard Parish. The state says at least one plaintiff in the case is a former client of Fernandez’s and that man’s family and related companies received damage awards in recent Fernandez decisions. … The upcoming case is the latest in a string of oyster damage suits that, if upheld on appeal, will cost the state more than $1 billion, according to the state’s motion.” (Mike Dunne, “DNR asks judge to step down”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Mar. 16). (DURABLE LINK)
March 25-26 — Tribulations of the light prison sleeper. David Wild, serving a sentence for murder at a medium security prison in British Columbia, is asking C$3 million in damages over what he calls the prison’s “inhumane” practice of conducting head counts in the middle of the night, which “has caused him to lose a full night’s sleep 509 times over five years.” In particular, Wild’s suit “says prison guards acted thoughtlessly and carelessly by rattling door knobs, stomping down stairs, turning on lights and talking loudly on two-way radios in the middle of the night.” Federal Court Justice James Hugessen has already ruled that the case can go forward, rejecting the Canadian government’s attempt to get it thrown out as frivolous or vexatious. (Janice Tibbetts, “Prison guards wake me up too much, murderer claims in $3.1M lawsuit”, Southam/National Post, Mar. 12). (DURABLE LINK)
March 22-24 — “O’Connor Criticizes Disabilities Law as Too Vague”. Another noteworthy public speech from Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor on a topic dear to our heart, namely the way the Americans with Disabilities Act created a massive new edifice of rights to sue without making clear who was actually covered by the law or what potential defendants had to do to comply. Law professor Chai Feldblum, who played a key role in guiding the law to passage while with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, counters by saying that its backers were not rushed and devoted much care and attention to drafting the bill’s provisions. Note that this does not actually contradict the charge of vagueness, but only Justice O’Connor’s charitable assumption that the vagueness was inadvertent; it is consistent with our own long-voiced opinion that the bounds of the law were made unclear on purpose. (Charles Lane, Washington Post, Mar. 15). For the Justice’s comments last summer on the relation between contingency fees, class actions and the litigation explosion, and on zero-tolerance policies, see July 6, 2001. (DURABLE LINK)
March 22-24 — Lawyers stage sham trial aimed at inculpating third party. Arizona bar authorities say opposing lawyers in a medical malpractice case cut a secret deal in which the lawyers for the physician defendant “promised not to object to any of the plaintiffs’ evidence in return for the plaintiffs’ promise to dismiss the case before the jury began deliberations.” A second defendant, Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, had already been dismissed from the case on summary judgment, and for the plaintiffs the point of the maneuver “was to create a record that would help them in seeking reconsideration of the summary judgment in favor of the hospital”. Both parties were aware that the physician defendant’s resources were insufficient to pay the claim if successful. The trial judge had been suspicious of the plaintiffs’ motion to withdraw the case, and later discovered the secret agreement when considering their motion to reconsider the summary judgment in favor of the hospital.
The state bar of Arizona brought a disciplinary action against Richard A. Alcorn and Steven Feola, who had represented the doctor. (The plaintiff’s attorney involved in the deal, Timothy J. Hmielewski, is from Florida). A hearing officer recommended against punishing the two, “concluding that the lawyers had a ‘good faith belief’ that they had no duty to disclose the secret pact”. However, both a disciplinary panel and the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed, and the latter ordered Alcorn and Feola suspended from practice for six months. It “concluded that the scripted trial and prearranged dismissal worked a serious fraud on the court and the public.” The trial judge had also “ordered all the attorneys involved to pay a $15,000 fine each for committing a fraud on the court and duping the court into conducting ‘a mock trial at the taxpayers’ expense.’ That sanction was affirmed on appeal.” (“‘Sham Trial’ Slammed, ABA Journal eReport, Mar. 8; In re Alcorn, Ariz. No. SB-01-0075-D.) (DURABLE LINK)
March 22-24 — Arsenic: one last dose? Last year some environmental groups did their best to make the public think that by pulling back the Clinton administration’s last-minute arsenic rules the incoming Bush White House was trying to let “polluters”, specifically the mining industry, get away with dumping the poison into town drinking water supplies. “This decision suggests the Bush Administration is caving to the mining industry’s demands to allow continued use of dangerous mining techniques,” said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. (Sierra Club release, Mar. 20, 2001). “This outrageous act is just another example of how the polluters have taken over the government,” said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Erik Olson. (NRDC release, Mar. 20, 2001). Critics of the stringent Clinton rule said its real victims would be ratepayers and taxpayers in the Southwest where municipal water systems would be forced to spend huge amounts to remove traces of naturally occurring arsenic that had been causing no evident health effects (see Sept. 11, 2001 and links from there).
So who was right? The Bush people ran into a p.r. disaster and soon backed down, but this week’s L.A. Times report from Albuquerque, N.M., which has more arsenic in its water than any other big American city, suggests that the enviros won their victory on the issue by misleading the public. Pretty much everyone the paper talked to in Albuquerque, from the Democratic mayor on down, dislikes the new standard: “many people here say the rule will do little more than cost the city $150 million, and Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico are suing to block it.” Did mining operations cause the city’s high arsenic levels? No, “volcanoes and lava flows are responsible”. (Elizabeth Shogren, “Albuquerque Battles to Leave Arsenic in the Water”, L.A. Times, Mar. 18). See also Robert McClure, “Mining, arsenic rules are next on Bush’s list”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 21, 2001: “Virtually all arsenic in drinking water is naturally occurring.” Mining companies wind up being affected indirectly by drinking water standards because of rules that treat mine runoff water as pollution if it flunks drinkability standards, even (absurdly) if the natural occurrence of substances like arsenic in the soil meant that the water would not have met the standard with or without mining operations. (More: Nick Schulz, “Greens vs. Poor People”, TechCentralStation, Nov. 6; Jonathan Adler, “Wrong way on water”, National Review Online, Nov. 13). (DURABLE LINK)