April 10 — “Pilloried, broke, alone”. Canadian journalist’s probe of “deadbeat dad” issue finds some bad guys but also many who “are too impoverished to pay, have been ordered to pay unreasonable amounts, have been paying for unreasonable lengths of time, or are the victims of bureaucratic foul-ups.” (Donna LaFramboise, “Pilloried, broke, alone”, National Post, March 25, link now dead).
April 10 — Verdict on Consumer Reports: false, but not damaging. After a two-month trial, a federal jury found Thursday that the magazine had made numerous false statements in its October 1996 cover story assailing the 1995-96 Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle as dangerously prone to roll over, but declined to award the Japanese carmaker any cash damages. The jury found that CR’s “testing” had put the vehicle through unnatural steering maneuvers which, contrary to the magazine’s claims, were not the same as those to which competitors’ vehicles had been subjected. Jury foreman Don Sylvia said the trial had left many jurors feeling that the magazine had behaved arrogantly, and that eight of ten jurors wanted to award Isuzu as much as $25 million, but didn’t because “we couldn’t find clear and convincing evidence that Consumers Union intentionally set out to trash the Trooper”. The jury found eight statements false but in only one of the eight did it determine CR to be knowingly or recklessly in error, which was when it said: “Isuzu … should never have allowed these vehicles on the road.” However, it ruled that statement not to have damaged the company, despite a sharp drop in Trooper sales from which the vehicle later recovered. The magazine sees fit to interpret these findings as “a complete and total victory for Consumer’s Union” (attorney Barry West) and “a complete vindication” (CU vice president David Pittle). (DURABLE LINK)
SOURCES: Consumers Union; its reaction (link now dead); Isuzu; its reaction; Dan Whitcomb, Reuters/Yahoo, April 6, link now dead; “Jury clears Consumer Reports magazine of liability in Isuzu case”, AP/CourtTV, Apr. 7; David Rosenzweig, “Jury Finds Magazine Erred in Isuzu Critique”, Los Angeles Times, April 7, link now dead. More background: Max Boot, “Guardian of the Lawyers’ Honey Pot”, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 1996, reprinted at JunkScience.com site, link now dead; Walter Olson, “It Didn’t Start with Dateline NBC”, National Review, June 21, 1993.
April 10 — Lawyers charged with $4.7 million theft from clients. “Two Manhattan lawyers were arrested and charged Friday with stealing $4.7 million from clients, including a widower with two children and a college professor who fractured her skull in an accident.” Jay Wallman and Alan Wechsler, both 60 years of age, “used the money to keep their Madison Avenue law firm afloat and to pay personal expenses, said Assistant District Attorney Doreen Klein”; in Wechsler’s case, that included paying some of his dues at the Willow Ridge Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., where he was president. The two have pleaded not guilty; “Wallman has resigned from practicing law and Wechsler has been suspended, the prosecutor said.” About $2.7 million of the alleged theft was carried out in the handling of an estate, and the rest in the course of representing medical malpractice and other personal injury plaintiffs, some of whom never were given any of the settlements collected on their behalf, prosecutors say. (“Two NYC lawyers arrested”, AP/CNNfn, April 7, link now dead).
April 10 — Diapered wildlife? Large-scale agriculture has come under criticism for its effects on the environment, but researchers are discovering that naturally occurring fauna can be destructive in similar ways. Colonies of seabirds, for example, “are releasing large amounts of ammonia into the atmosphere through their droppings. … Very large emissions of ammonia could have a detrimental impact on the local ecology, and may be just as problematic as intensive farming. Scientists studying a seabird colony on Bass Rock off the east coast of Scotland have already measured ammonia concentrations 20 times higher than those on chicken farms.” Global warming researchers have noted that among the more important contributors to the level of “greenhouse gas” emissions is cows’ natural tendency to emit methane, and controls on bovine flatulence may be necessary in the future if countries like Ireland are to contribute proportionally to world reductions in such emissions. (“The ‘innocent’ polluters”, BBC News (Scotland), March 8; “Don’t forget methane, climate experts say”, CNN/ENN, Nov. 10, 1999; Google search on “bovine flatulence“). (DURABLE LINK)
April 10 — Courts split on disabled golfer issue. “In a 24-hour span [last month], two federal appeals courts gave opposing decisions on whether handicapped golf pros can use motorized carts during tournament play” — that is to say, whether they can do so against the wishes of tournament organizers. In the more publicized of the two cases, the 9th Circuit agreed with Casey Martin’s demand that he be allowed to use a cart in the PGA Tour; but a day later “a three-judge panel with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago amid much less fanfare affirmed a lower court decision denying Ford Olinger similar mechanical assistance.” Circuit splits make it more likely that an issue will eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Mark R. Madler, “Fed Circuits Suddenly Split on Handicapped Golfers”, American Lawyer Media, March 9). “Olinger himself may have made the most penetrating observation, bemoaning that his appeal was heard by a panel of golfers, while Martin’s was not.” (Robert S. Shwarts, “A Good Walk Spoiled”, American Lawyer Media, March 23).
April 10 — 300,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
April 7-9 — Silicon siege. With Bill Gates down for the count, who’s next? Antitrust officials, having recently nailed old-line auction houses (“dowagers in the paddy wagon”) Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have now begun an investigation of eBay (“eBay Is Subject of Antitrust Probe, Congress Considers Underlying Issue”, E-Commerce Law Weekly, Feb. 9). Trial lawyers are pressing hard against laptop makers, hoping to repeat their nine-digit take from the Toshiba-glitch class action. (Joe Wilcox, “Data-storage suit sends shockwaves through PC industry”, CNet News, March 1). The many pending claims against AOL include those seeking to reclassify volunteers as workers entitled to back wages and those over the tendency of the 5.0 upgrade to interfere with alternative Internet access (“AOL Sued in Federal and State Court”, E-Commerce Law Weekly, Feb. 9). And privacy suits are being launched against all sorts of Internet leaders, from Yahoo on down (Susan Borreson, “Do You Yahoo?”, Texas Lawyer, Feb. 14). Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers, in a piece written before the Microsoft ruling, says high-tech firms will just be asking for trouble if they cuddle up to Washington in search of official favors, and would do better to unite in resistance: “Silicon Valley is an island of capitalism in a sea of collectivism …. an island of meritocracy in a sea of power struggles.” (“Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations With Washington, D.C.”, Cato Institute monograph (PDF format); Declan McCullagh, “Schmoozing: A Capitol Offense”, Wired News, March 20; “It’s All About Capitalism”, March 20).
April 7-9 — Trips on shoelace, demands $10 million from Nike. “A Manhattan orthopedic surgeon sued Nike Inc. on Wednesday for $10 million, saying shoes made by the athletic footwear giant tripped her and caused permanent injury.” Dr. Deborah A. Faryniarz says that while she was jogging last April “the right shoelace hooked around the back tab of the left sneaker, spilling her onto her wrists and knees” and causing a wrist injury that imperils her future career as a surgeon. Nike spokeswoman Cheryl McCants in Beaverton, Ore., said the company hadn’t yet seen the complaint but that people “sometimes don’t tie their shoes properly.” (“Nike Sued Over Shoelace”, AP/FindLaw, April 5, link now dead).
April 7-9 — School safety hysteria, institutionalized. “North Carolina has quietly launched a program that allows students to call in anonymously or fill out a Web-based form to report on classmates who might appear depressed or angry — or who just scare them,” reports Wired News. The Wave America program and website are run by the Pinkerton Corp., of security fame. On Slashdot, Jon Katz says that the site’s criteria for evaluating whether a fellow student is disturbed or depressed are alarmingly vague. The site also invites students to report anonymously about “intensely prejudiced or intolerant attitudes”, possession of weapons or alcohol on campus, or “anything else harmful to you or your school”. (Lynn Burke, “A Chilling Wave Hits Schools”, April 5; “Why call the WAVE line?“; “Early signs of violence“; Slashdot April 4 thread; our “Annals of Zero Tolerance“).
April 7-9 — L.A.’s mystifying jury summons. Think the long-form census is overkill? “The Los Angeles County court system has come up with a new jury summons form so dense that even some judges can’t make sense of it. The form, resembling a cross between a mortgage application and a deli menu, has generated a flood of complaints — including one from a Pasadena resident called to jury duty: Judge Lance Ito. He filled it out incorrectly.” (David Colker, “Jury Summons Is Guilty of Confusion”, Los Angeles Times, April 3).
April 7-9 — OSHA & telecommuters: the long view. Our editor’s April Reason column finds that this winter’s failed OSHA effort to regulate home offices was no fluke, being in many ways the logical culmination of an animus against home-based work that can be traced through decades of federal labor law (Walter Olson, “Office Managers”, Reason, April). The whole episode reminded columnist Joanne Jacobs of the manner of governance of the Emerald City: “I am OSHA, the Great and Powerful. Pay no attention to that clerk behind the curtain. The Great and Powerful OSHA has spoken. … Sorry. Never mind.” (“Work-at-home employees don’t need this kind of help from Washington”, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 12, no longer online)
April 6 — Feds file Medicare recoupment suit over silicone implants. “The federal government wants to recover millions of dollars it spent treating thousands of women allegedly injured by silicone breast implants, and it’s trying to get in line ahead of the women for its money,” reports AP. The operative phrase above is “allegedly”, since by now it’s widely conceded that science didn’t bear out the original implant panic stoked by federal regulators and trial lawyers. But the feds undoubtedly did lay out health care moneys to treat immune disorders and other ailments “allegedly” (if not necessarily in reality) caused by the implants, so now the feds are going to demand compensation from the manufacturers. You didn’t think medical-recoupment lawsuit theories were really going to remain confined to tobacco, just because they kept saying that at the time, did you? (Michael J. Sniffen, “US Sues Over Implant Fund Recovery”, AP/Excite, April 1, link now dead; Yahoo Full Coverage; Professor David Bernstein’s breast implant litigation page; Doug Bandow, “Breast Implant Myths”, Cato Daily Commentary, Feb. 24).
April 6 — Columnist-fest. They keep writing them, and we keep linking them:
* Microsoft’s $80 billion plunge in market valuation in recent days has directly or indirectly dealt a blow to the retirement security of as many as 80 million investors, and Schroder & Co. chief economist Larry Kudlow predicts a public reaction against the kind of anti-business grandstanding exemplified by attorneys general Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Eliot Spitzer (New York), whose ubiquitous appearances on cable news have been “limited only by the available volume of airtime.” Also includes some choice quotes from Gov. George W. Bush (“I’m unsympathetic to lawsuits, basically; write that down. …I have been a tort-reform governor. I’ll be a tort-reform president.”) (“Americans Vote Microsoft”, National Review, April 4; “Microsoft’s Market Value Drops $80B”, AP/Washington Post, April 3, link now dead).
* “No aspect of life is untouched by lawyers,” observes Mona Charen, citing recent cases on employer liability (Hawaiian car dealership case, see March 10-12) and personal responsibility (drunk Honda driver’s drowning, see March 28) and mentioning this website. Also quotes from an elaborate disclaimer presented to Girl Scouts before they go horseback riding (“Society is Oppressed by Litigation”, Omaha World Herald, April 5).
* Cathy Young is troubled by the recent decision of Philadelphia’s police commissioner to give outside feminist groups a big role in deciding which ambiguous incidents should be categorized as rape (“Let’s not forget the rights of accused in rape cases”, Detroit News, April 5; see March 27 commentary).
April 6 — High fee dosage. “Twenty law firms are set to share a staggering $175 million fee award for winning the settlement of a class action against drug manufacturers and wholesalers over their pricing practices.” Much of the booty will go to four veteran class action firms that filed the antitrust charges: San Francisco’s Saveri & Saveri, Chicago’s Much Shelist Freed Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein, Chicago’s Specks & Goldberg, and Philadelphia’s Berger & Montague. (Brenda Sandburg, “They’re in the Money”, The Recorder/CalLaw, Feb. 16).
April 6 — For the legal-definition file. Varying standards of proof, as defined by Slate Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick: “The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment requires that each element of a crime be proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ This means that jurors must be pretty darn certain before they vote for a conviction. In contrast, the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard required under the New Jersey hate-crimes statute [now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court] is a standard used in civil trials to mean that the facts in question are more likely true than not. This is the standard used by parents when they smell beer on your breath.” (Dahlia Lithwick, “Clarence Thomas Speaks!”, Slate, March 28).
April 5 — New Hampshire high court blowup. Yes, scandals happen even up there. Associate Justice Stephen Thayer of the New Hampshire Supreme Court resigned last Friday “after prosecutors concluded he broke the law by trying to improperly influence the assignment of judges hearing his divorce case.” Thayer maintains his innocence, but struck a deal with state Attorney General Philip McLaughlin to resign on a promise that he would not face criminal ethics charges. McLaughlin then released a report saying it was an “institutional practice” at the court for judges who’d excused themselves from cases to review and discuss draft decisions in those cases. Calls for the impeachment or resignation of other justices followed, and are being taken seriously in the state legislature.
However, Chief Justice David Brock says that, Thayer aside, judges have never been permitted to comment on draft opinions in cases where they’d recused themselves because of conflict of interest; and Justice Sherman Horton told a reporter that the sorts of occasions when judges would comment had been when they’d excused themselves for other reasons, such as illness or temporary absence. Accusing the attorney general of grandstanding, Brock said the practice went back decades and that the AG had not given the court a chance to answer the charges before taking them to the press and legislature.
SOURCES: court home page; Holly Ramer, “N.H. Supreme Court Justice Resigns”, AP/Excite, March 31, link now dead; Katharine Webster, “Three N.H. Justices May Be Removed”, AP/Excite, April 1, link now dead; “Whistleblower called hero”, Boston Globe, April 1, link now dead; Norma Love, “Legislators reeling from allegations against justices”, AP/Boston Globe, April 3, link now dead; Brock statement; Kevin Landrigan, “Judge strikes back”, Nashua Telegraph, April 4; Alec MacGillis, “He won’t resign; calls accusations ‘unfounded attack'”, Concord Monitor, April 4; Manchester Union Leader; Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover). Updates: Brock acquitted at impeachment trial before New Hampshire Senate (Oct. 11); state disciplinary panel gives him admonishment only (May 3, 2001).
April 5 — Update: judge okays “deep linking”. In a much-watched case, Los Angeles federal judge Harry Hupp has ruled that the practice of linking to interior pages of a competitor’s web site does not by itself violate the competitor’s copyright (see our Aug. 13 commentary). The Ticketmaster Corporation had sued California-based Tickets.com, an online tickets service which provides links to the Ticketmaster site for tickets that it does not itself have available. The judge allowed Ticketmaster to proceed with claims that its competitor had breached its copyright in other ways, as by improperly compiling and repackaging information obtained from the Ticketmaster site. (Michelle Finley, “Attention Editors: Deep Link Away”, Wired News, March 30; Brenda Sandburg, “Copyright Not Violated by Hypertext Link”, The Recorder/CalLaw, March 31).
April 5 — Seemed a little excessive. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether it was appropriate for a Chester County court to award $46,000 in legal fees stemming from a dispute over an original $500 legal bill. The case arose in 1988 after Maria P. Bomersbach withheld her monthly owner’s assessment at the Mountainview Condominium Owners Association because of a dispute with the association’s management over her request to inspect its budget documents. The condo association took her to court and the two sides almost settled, but were $300 apart in their offers. Ten years of intensive litigation followed, during which Mrs. Bomersbach, according to judges’ opinions, “engaged in legal ‘trench warfare’ and subjected the association to a ‘pleadings onslaught’ that would render even a competent attorney ‘shell-shocked.'” A dissenting appellate judge called the $46,548 fee “totally unreasonable, and perhaps unconscionable,” and said the condo association shared responsibility for protracting the litigation. (Lori Litchman, “Pa. Supreme Court to Decide Dispute Over $46,000 Fee to Collect $500 Legal Bill”, The Legal Intelligencer, Feb. 28).
April 5 — The booths have ears. In Canada’s National Post, John O’Sullivan writes that his “attention was caught by a small item in the British press: Police in Gloucester are cracking down on local racism by entering restaurants in disguise and listening for racist conversation. In the first week of ‘Operation Napkin,’ one man was arrested for racially aggravated harassment. Another was overheard mimicking an Indian waiter, but the police decided that his behavior did not warrant prosecution.” (John O’Sullivan, “Operation Napkin to the Rescue”, National Post, March 28, link now dead).
April 4 — Microsoft violated antitrust law, judge rules. Competitors gloat: “I think it’s fair to say that the logical conclusion is that the degree to which Microsoft is restrained, that ought to be good for everybody else in tech,” says Sun Microsystems general counsel Michael Morris, henceforth to be known as “Zero-Sum” Morris. NASDAQ investors evidently don’t agree with him, sending the index skidding 349.15 points, or 7.6 percent. “Microsoft has been kept in check by all these antitrust proceedings from doing anything too bold,” says Kevin Fong with Mayfield Fund in Menlo Park; non-boldness has its costs, Microsoft now having slipped behind Cisco in market value for the first time. And Brookings’ Robert Litan calls the ruling “manna from heaven for the private plaintiffs because it basically should eliminate a lot of their need for proof”. (Eun-Kyung Kim, “Judge Rules Against Microsoft”, AP/Yahoo, April 3, link now dead; Dick Satran, “Tech Industry Remains Guarded on Microsoft”, Reuters/Yahoo, April 3, link now dead; Yahoo Full Coverage).
April 4 — Emerging campaign issue: “brownfields” vs. Superfund lawyers. A few weeks ago (see February 26-27 commentary) a report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that Superfund liability fears are among major factors stalling redevelopment of “brownfields” (abandoned or underused industrial sites) in American cities. Now the issue has reached the presidential campaign, with Texas Gov. George Bush yesterday calling for reforms aimed at encouraging brownfield redevelopment, including liability protections for new developers that perform responsible cleanups, an initiative that is anathema to the Superfund bar. “The old system of mandate, regulate and litigate only sends potential developers off in search of greener pastures — literally,” Bush told workers at a plant in Pennsylvania. Vice President Gore has cited the Superfund law as among his proudest legislative achievements, though others have much criticized it as a boondoggle for litigators that slows down actual cleanups. (Patricia Wilson, “Bush on Gore Turf Proposes Environmental Agenda”, Reuters/Yahoo, April 3, link now dead; Bush campaign statement).
April 4 — Progressives’ betrayal. Jonathan Rauch’s new National Journal column argues that the American Left betrayed its principles when it got into bed (much of it, at least) with trial lawyers who have lately pitched their services as ways to bypass the tiresome need for legislation. “Suddenly the American Left is on the side of fantastically wealthy private actors who are accountable to no one.”
“Who elected these lawyers to help legislatures? What will they do next, helpfully, with their billions? If lawyers file and finance lawsuits against an unpopular industry and then channel billions of dollars of booty back into government treasuries, while also channeling millions more into soft-money donations to political parties, how is that any less corrupting than when chemical companies make PAC contributions in exchange for tax breaks? … If the Left ceases to be a counterweight to huge concentrations of unaccountable private wealth and power, of what earthly use is it?” Also, don’t miss the old quote that Rauch unearths from Ralph Nader, about how undemocratic it is for governance to go on in back rooms without informed public consent and participation — this before Ralph’s friends in the trial bar realized they could govern that way. (“Triumphantly, America’s Left Betrays Itself (Again)”, National Journal, March 31).
April 4 — Now it’s hot chocolate. As if the menace of hot take-out coffee were not bad enough, Dunkin Donuts is now being sued over the temperature of the hot chocolate served at one of its outlets in Barre, Vermont. “The suit was filed in Washington County Superior Court by Diane Bradeen who claims her daughter Katrina suffered burns on her lap when the hot drink was spilled.” (“Suit filed over temperature of Dunkin Donuts’ hot chocolate”, AP/Boston Globe, April 3, link now dead).
April 3 — Book feature: “The Kinder, Gentler Military”. “So how did we get from the blood, sweat, and tears version of boot camp, to ‘Bootcamp Lite,’ … ‘battle buddies,’ ‘training time-outs,’ ‘confidence course facilitators,’ and the ‘gender-normed’ grenade throw?…
“Government nineties-style was obsessed with the self-esteem of its citizens and with avoiding injury — psychic and physical. … A doddering kind of hypochondria filled the land. Since so many new kinds of injuries were now validated by the courts and by the culture at large, new classes of victims proliferated, and activities that used to be considered a bit risky (but generally worth it) were treated like virtual minefields of danger …
“It was [also] inevitable that the personal-is-political crowd would get around to the military. They had spent much of the seventies and eighties focusing on the workplace, the home, and schools, but it had been harder to find a way into that monastery standing outside the gates, the preserve of all that was imperialistic, aggressive, violent, hierarchical, uncompromising, authoritarian. … And the military made such an exciting end-of-the-century project. In an era devoted to examining, criticizing, and rebuking masculinity, the armed forces were the last preserve where the species ran free. …
“The new broadly written and subjectively defined infraction [of “hostile environment” sexual harassment] opened up a new frontier for litigation and created a new legal language. A hostile and offensive environment is very difficult to define. … A vague definition combined with lawyers smelling money is a dangerous combination. Wherever there is a possibility for confusion (as between men and women most of the time) there is a possibility for injury, and the law gave us a crude template of victim and victimizer, hurtful act and injury, perpetrator and receiver, to fit over the most complex, the most ambivalent, the most highly charged, of our relationships: between men and women, employer and employee, teacher and student. …
“Nobody really knew where ‘sexual harassment’ began and ended and we were still struggling in the early nineties: Society and the military [are] just beginning to understand that certain behaviors constituted harassment,’ one congressman explained with great earnestness at the time. But while we tried to figure out what sexual harassment was and what it was not, the new law seemed to take on a life of its own. Our half-finished creation began to toddle around the countryside scooping up victims in its large bumbling hands. Even the president could not escape….
“[Quoting military sociologist Charles Moskos:] ‘The Tailhook convention of ’91 was the worst event for the [U.S.] Navy since Pearl Harbor.'”
— from The Kinder, Gentler Military: Can America’s Gender-Neutral Fighting Force Still Win Wars? by Stephanie Gutmann, newly published by Scribner (Review: Richard Bernstein, New York Times, March 24; Yahoo full coverage).
April 3 — Update: junk-fax lawsuit rebuffed. In Houston, Judge Harvey Brown has dismissed the lawsuit discussed in this space October 22, which demanded $7 billion from 80 area businesses that had patronized ad services that faxed coupons and other circulars to what the lawyers said were unwilling recipients. Since the suit was filed in 1995, Texas has passed a law prohibiting unsolicited commercial faxing, but the lawyers had come up with the idea of suing in state court under an earlier federal statute providing for penalties of $500 to $1500 per fax sent, which given the class action format added up to billions: one defense lawyer called it “Powerball for the clever”. (Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse-Houston, undated; judge’s order made public March 22).
April 20 — Not tonight, gotta coach my kids. “Children as young as 7 and 9 were coached to fake injuries in a car insurance fraud case in western Arkansas, a lawyer for the state Insurance Department said.” Eleven people in the Fort Smith area were charged with setting up liability claims by staging accidents so as to make it appear that other drivers were at fault. “Clay Simpson, an attorney for the department, said some used children as passengers and trained them to act injured after the staged crashes”. One of the adults evidently decided to add realism, according to Simpson, and “physically struck one of the small children in the head so he would have an injury … and be able to go to the hospital.” (Arkansas Insurance Department press release, April 13; Chuck Bartels, “Eleven Charged for Staging Crashes”, AP/Excite, Apr. 13; “The youngest grifters”, AP/ABC News, Apr. 14).
April 20 — Web-advertisers’ apocalypse? Most noteworthy tidbit in WSJ news story a while back on wave of privacy suits against cookie-deploying Web ad firms, quoting Fordham Law’s Joel Reidenberg, a specialist on the topic: “Even advertisers could have some liability to the extent they benefited from and participated in the DoubleClick network. ‘Anybody in the chain of information who participated in the passing off of information to others would be potential targets,’ Mr. Reidenberg says.” (Richard B. Schmitt, “Online Privacy: Alleged Abuses Shape New Law”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 29, 2000, fee-based archive).
April 20 — Arm yourself for managed care debate. How much higher will medical costs go when Congress makes it easier to sue, and how many more families will get priced out of health insurance? How coherently will a cost control system work once it’s geared to whichever jury gets angriest? Resources: Krishna Kundu, “The Norwood-Dingell Liability Bill: Health Insurance at Risk”, Employment Policy Foundation cost study, Mar. 24; “The Problems with Punitive Damages in Lawsuits against Managed-Care Organizations”, New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 27; Health Benefits Coalition.
April 20 — Letourneau scandal: now where’s my million? “The teen-ager who fathered two children by his former grade school teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau, is seeking damages from a suburban [Seattle] municipality and school district. Vili Fualaau, now 16, and his mother, Soona, are seeking damages of at least $1 million for emotional suffering, lost income and the cost of rearing the girls, who are in the care of the boy’s mother.” The suit charges school officials with failing to protect the boy from the amorous advances of his teacher, 38, who’s now serving a 7 1/2 year sentence for her involvement with him. “The teen, his mother and Letourneau previously have said in television appearances and in a book that the relationship was consensual.” (“Teen-age boy seeks damages in Washington state teacher sex case”, AP/CNN, Apr. 14).
April 19 — All dressed up. James and Cynthia Harnage of Norwich, Ct. are seeking $21 million in damages from Publisher’s Clearing House, the magazine sweepstakes company, which they say in or around last December sent them repeated notices marked “Document of Title” and “official correspondence from the Publisher’s Clearing House board of judges” with messages such as “Congratulations! Your recent entry was a winner! And Approved for $21 Million!” The Harnages say they came to be convinced that they would receive the grand prize in person on Super Bowl Sunday and even got all dressed up to wait for the knock on the door, but it never came. According to a local paper, Mr. Harnage describes himself as devastated by the letdown; the lawsuit alleges fraud and breach of contract and says the couple suffered emotional distress. (“Disappointed couple sues Publisher’s Clearing House”, AP/Newsday, Apr. 14; “Couple sues Publisher’s Clearing House”, New London (Ct.) Day, Apr. 16).
April 19 — From the incivility frontier. Richard F. Ziegler, writing in the Feb. 7 National Law Journal: “Until recently, the classic example of incivility in litigation was famed Texas lawyer Joe Jamail’s defense of a deposition witness in the 1993 Paramount-QVC Network-Viacom takeover battle. According to the excerpts of the deposition transcript included in an addendum to an opinion by the Delaware Supreme Court, Jamail told the examining lawyer that he could ‘gag a maggot off a meat wagon’ and made other vituperative remarks that the Delaware court labeled ‘extraordinarily rude, uncivil and vulgar.’ . … Mr. Jamail’s ‘maggot’ rhetoric has now been displaced by a new classic in incivility: a pre-suit letter sent by a New York litigator that threatened the prospective defendant with the ‘legal equivalent of a proctology exam’ if the plaintiff’s claim weren’t satisfied without litigation. That wording, plus some other aggressive tactics by the same lawyer, ended up costing the would-be proctologist a $50,000 sanction (now on appeal).” The sanctions were handed down last November by federal judge Denny Chin against litigator Judd Burstein, in a case called Revson v. Cinque & Cinque P.C. However, prospective targets of legal intimidation should not get their hopes up too high: a few years ago the Second Circuit, which includes New York, “sustained as proper a pre-suit letter that sought to encourage settlement by threatening the opposing party with harmful publicity.” (Richard F. Ziegler, “Litigation: The Price of Incivility”, National Law Journal, Feb. 7).
April 19 — Microsoft case: commentators. A gamut of views, ranging from the moderately appalled to the fully appalled:
* Robert Samuelson on the clash between the living thing that is the New Economy and the seemingly robotic lurch of antitrust enforcement (“Puzzles of the New Economy”, Newsweek, April 17);
* Tom Watson, though declaring himself “no cyberlibertarian,” laments that the suit “has permanently created a Federal presence in the development of networked software in the United States. And that means, of course, lots of lawyers getting lots of hourly fees to litigate in an area they clearly don’t understand.” (“Justice Department Saves the Internet, Film at 11″, AtNewYork, April 6 — via Q Queso);
* Michael Kinsley has fun with a New York Times reporter on the question of whether it was shocking for Bill Gates to try to fend off Justice Department assault by — eeeuw! — hiring lobbyists (“The Timesman With a Microchip on His Shoulder”, Slate, April 17).
April 19 — $60,000 battle over $5 t-shirt. In Westerly, Rhode Island, court wrangling has now gone on for two years over whether then-sophomore Robert Parker’s heavy-metal t-shirt (“White Zombie”, number 666 on back) was unnecessarily disruptive and thus in violation of the school dress code. (Michael Mello, “RI ‘Satanic’ T-Shirt Case Continues”, AP/Washington Post, Apr. 10). Update Aug. 29-30: case has settled.
April 18 — Brockovich story, cont’d: the judges’ cruise. Picking up where we left off yesterday with more highlights from Kathleen Sharp’s investigation for Salon:
* Not long after the case settled with its lucrative $133 million lawyers’ fee, the two L.A. lawyers who’d teamed with the Masry/Brockovich firm to handle the PG&E case, Thomas Girardi of Girardi & Keese in Los Angeles, and Walter Lack of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Century City, “organized a weeklong Mediterranean cruise for 90 people, including 11 public and private judges. The three PG&E arbitrators were among those invited,” reports Sharp. “One judge called it ‘absolutely incredible.’ A luxury yacht floated on azure waters; tuxedoed butlers balanced silver trays of free champagne; young bikini-clad ladies frolicked on the sun-splashed deck, according to retired Judge [William] Schoettler, who was a guest. As another bare-chested judge remarked at the time: ‘This gives decadence a bad name.'”
“The cruise was organized under the banner of Girardi and Lack’s Foundation for the Enrichment of the Law. Girardi told the Los Angeles Times that the cruise included ‘an extensive professional program,'” which would make it allowable under judicial rules, but retired judge Schoettler can’t recall anyone he knew actually attending a lecture. “The cost was about $3,000 per person, about half the normal rate; Girardi told the Times he and Lack had received a discount for chartering the entire Cunard cruise ship. After some confusion, all of the judges on the trip paid their way, save two unrelated to the PG&E case who were invited to lecture.”
* Some of the judges in the arbitration had an unusually friendly relationship with Girardi: one had officiated at his second wedding, Schoettler had flown in his Gulfstream to attend the World Series, and so forth. “‘I became aware that I should absolutely stay away from [arbitration firm] JAMS or its retired judges when it came to any dealing with Tom Girardi,’ said Laurence Janssen, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson. … ‘The common lore imparted to me was that it would be crazy to get in front of any JAMS arbitration with Girardi.'” The outcry over the post-Hinkley-case cruise helped spur a California Supreme Court inquiry into the arbitration system. (Kathleen Sharp, “Erin Brockovich: The Real Story”, Salon, April 14).
Incredibly — given all the above — some in the White House and in the Al Gore campaign are hoping to ride the success of the celluloid “Erin Brockovich” into a chance to seize the initiative on behalf of the wonders of the beneficent tort system and the wickedness of the mean old tort reformers who’d like it to be regulated and supervised more closely. That came across in both a relatively light column by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd (“The Erin Factor”, April 5) and a thuddingly heavy one by Salon‘s Joe Conason, whose writings often sum up the theme-of-the-week of the Clinton/Gore attack machine (“Lessons from ‘Erin Brockovich'”, March 28). Given the revelations in Kathleen Sharp’s article — which, if there’s any justice, should be in contention for the next round of journalistic prizes — it now may be time for Gore’s backers to hope that public opinion doesn’t start focusing on the Hinkley case. Also recommended: Dennis Byrne, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times that “as I sat through the movie with a reporter’s skepticism, I was uneasy about how one-sided it was,” and offering a list of “movies you’ll never see come out of Hollywood”, (“A feel-good story with a bad taste”, April 12, link now dead); and Michelle Malkin, “The truth about Erin Brockovich”, syndicated/ Jewish World Review, April 17.
April 18 — Catfight! This store’s not big enough for two tigers. Federal appeals court reinstates Kellogg Co.’s suit against Exxon over the two companies’ use of cartoon tigers, both of which date back to the 1950s. For years Exxon’s “tiger in your tank” was mostly seen at the gas pump, but more recently the petroleum company has moved him indoors to tout food items at its convenience stores, angering the Battle Creek-based cereal company, which uses Tony the Tiger to sell its Sugar Frosted Flakes. (“Kellogg Renews Suit Against Exxon over Tiger”, AP/Washington Post, Apr. 12).
April 18 — Update: trial lawyers’ war on Allstate. Plaintiff’s attorneys score some advances in campaign against big insurer known for lawyer-averse claims practices (see “How To Hammer Allstate”, Dec. 22). A New Haven, Ct. federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that that company committed fraud by discouraging third parties involved in accidents with its insureds from retaining lawyers. A Seattle judge agreed with trial lawyer arguments that for Allstate to urge such third-party claimants not to hire lawyers amounts to the unauthorized practice of law and is thus illegal. And a Nassau County, N.Y. judge has levied sanctions against the company for insisting on its policyholder’s day in court against a claim where it should in the judge’s view have conceded liability. (Mark Ballard, “Allstate Tactics Under Fire,” National Law Journal, Jan. 31; Thomas Scheffey, “Allstate Suit Gets Nod From Connecticut Court”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Feb. 14; Michael A. Riccardi, “Appeal Battle Over Allstate Sanction Case May Help Tort Plaintiffs”, New York Law Journal, Mar. 22). Update Apr. 25, 2004: insurer prevails in Connecticut federal case.
April 17 — Brockovich story breaks wide open. Salon scoops competition with journalist Kathleen Sharp’s impressive investigation of the real lawsuit that inspired “Erin Brockovich”. In the Hollywood tale, after our spunky heroine vanquishes nasty Pacific Gas & Electric, the residents of Hinkley, Calif. win big. In the real world, many of the Hinkley clients feel they got the royal shaft from the lawyers who represented them, and are now proceeding to sue those lawyers, specifically Brockovich’s firm of Masry & Vititoe, headed by Ed Masry:
* Of the $333 million settlement paid by PG&E, the lawyers kept a handsome 40 percent ($133 million) share, plus another $10 mil to cover expenses, yet were short (the clients say) on detail to back up the latter largish number. Worse, they say Masry, Brockovich & Co. held on to their money for six months after the settlement, a delay that appears highly irregular to the experts Salon checks with, while not paying interest or even returning their phone calls (the lawyers claim the payments did include interest). Some with large awards also got steered toward certain financial planners, among whom was Ed Masry’s son Louis.
* When the payouts eventually came, many clients found the division of spoils mysterious, arbitrary-seeming or worse. Divided among the 650 plaintiffs, the announced $196 million would provide about $300,000 per client. However, an outside lawyer who interviewed 81 of the plaintiffs says he was told they received an average of $152,000, and Salon reports that many long-term residents with presumably documented medical ailments got payments of $50,000 or $60,000. The numbers are in fact secret, which means clients can’t get an accounting of who received what — you’ve gotta protect the privacy of the other plaintiffs, right? Moreover, “there was no mention of the criteria, formula or method by which the money would be divided,” other than a statement that the amounts would be based on clients’ medical records. Yet some residents say their medical records were never solicited. One elderly, ailing resident “blew up at one of the attorneys, who didn’t like his attitude,” according to a fellow townsman, and “got a real bad deal,” allotted in the end only $25,000: “fairly or not, some residents say they saw a pattern in the distribution method. ‘If you were buddies with Ed and Erin, you got a lot of money,’ said [client Carol] Smith. ‘Otherwise, forget it.'”
* Even while the case was pending, many clients (as well as the outside press) found themselves unable to keep tabs on its progress; it was resolved in arbitration, which takes place off the public record. “We had no idea what was going on and weren’t allowed to watch,” said one plaintiff. Yet with help from the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Universal Studios managed to obtain a copy of the trial transcript — more than many of the actual plaintiffs in the case have yet managed to do. When journalist Sharp attempted to interview the lawyers on the Brockovich team, the resulting conversations were “short and explosive and terminated abruptly by the lawyers.” And when an outside lawyer took an interest in the disgruntled clients’ case, Masry and fellow lawyers at once seized the offensive, suing him for allegedly slandering them and interfering with their business relationship with the clients; this slander suit was filed, then dropped two weeks later, then reinstated, then dropped again.
* What about the science? (see April 14 and March 30 commentaries) Fumes from the application of chromium-6 in industrial settings are indeed dangerous to workers who inhale them, but the crux of the Hinkley controversy was what kind of health risk the substance poses as a trace water pollutant. Sharp quotes toxicologist Sharon Wilbur at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who flatly contradicts Brockovich on whether the contaminant could have caused the various health problems sued over.
* Sharp also unearths allegations leveled by the Brockovich-side lawyers and by others that the first set of lawyers PG&E had used on the case had engaged in potentially serious misconduct, including privacy invasion by hired gumshoes. It’s hard to know how much weight to give these allegations, but if credited even in part they might suggest a motive for the utility to accept a hasty settlement of the case on unfavorable terms.
Some of Sharp’s sources evidently have a bit of an ax to grind against arbitration as an institution, but the article is still a triumph of sheer reportorial legwork, too rich in detail to summarize in one day. Tomorrow: the judges’ posh Mediterranean cruise, mounting press interest in the case, and the politics of it all. (Kathleen Sharp, “Erin Brockovich: The Real Story”, Salon, April 14).
April 17 — Annals of zero tolerance: kindergartners’ “bang, you’re dead”. Four kindergartners playing “cops and robbers” at Wilson School in Sayreville, New Jersey were given three-day suspensions after they pretended their fingers were guns and played at shooting each other. “This is a no tolerance policy. We’re very firm on weapons and threats,” said district superintendent William L. Bauer. “Given the climate of our society, we cannot take any of these statements in a light manner.” (“N.J. kindergartners suspended for threats during playground ‘cops and robbers’ “, AP/Court TV, April 6; see also Nov. 20 commentary).
April 17 — Another sampling of visitors. The hundreds of diverse websites that link to us include the Wyoming Libertarian Party (“I’d say this country is overlawyered, but some trial lawyer will probably sue me for saying it”), Arrosage Lemay, a pest control and lawn maintenance enterprise in Notre-Dame- de- la-Salette, Québec (catch the antennae-wiggling animations), and Ridgefield Focus, a community site serving a town of which we’re very fond, Ridgefield, Ct.
April 14-16 — Great moments in defamation law. At a sentencing hearing for James Hermann, who’d pled guilty to armed robbery, defense lawyer Robin Shellow argued that despite her client’s extensive criminal record (six previous adult convictions) he deserved to be treated with some leniency because he’d been struggling with a heroin problem. But this last statement of hers was mistaken: though Mr. Hermann admitted in a probation report that he was high on crack cocaine and Valium when he’d used a shotgun to rob a Milwaukee custard store owner, his drug use did not include heroin. Hermann proceeded to sue her for defamation, and although the judge in the criminal case said her slip hadn’t affected the length of the sentence either way, Hermann proceeded to line up an expert witness willing to testify that he’d “suffered psychological harm as the result of being called a heroin addict instead of a cocaine addict”, according to Shellow’s lawyer, Randal Arnold. Psychologist Paul M. Smerz told the court that Hermann had suffered “lessened sense of self-confidence, self-esteem and overall self-image” and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his attorney’s groundless comment. The case dragged on for two years and finally settled this spring as it was approaching trial when Shellow agreed to refund $500 of her original legal fee to Hermann. (Cary Spivak, “‘Hey, I use coke, not H’, robber says in suit v. his lawyer”, National Law Journal, Mar. 27).
April 14-16 — “Erin Brockovich”: plume of controversy. Julia Roberts’s screen appeal is undeniable, but how good’s the science? The New York Times‘ Gina Kolata joins the fray (title says it all: “A Hit Movie Is Rated ‘F’ in Science”, April 11), while Brockovich herself, who’s currently traversing the country helping organize toxic tort suits, spars with critic Michael Fumento in the letters column of the Wall Street Journal (letters exchange reprinted at Fumento website; Raphael Lewis, “Opening in a toxics case near you, Erin Brokovich” [sic], Boston Globe, Apr. 1; Edward Lewine, “Writer’s Slam Angers Real Erin Brockovich”, New York Daily News, Apr. 2; this site’s March 30 commentary).
April 14-16 — “Saints, sinners and the Isuzu Trooper”. Column by Washington Post‘s Warren Brown on Consumer Reports/Isuzu Trooper dustup (see April 10) finds plenty to criticize on both sides. “If anything is to be learned from the Isuzu-CU conflict, it is, perhaps, that both David and Goliath deserve equally aggressive scrutiny because both are equally capable of screwing up.” (“Saints, Sinners and the Isuzu Trooper”, April 13 — online chat with Brown scheduled for Monday 11 a.m. EST at Post site).
April 14-16 — Police resent political gun-buying influence. Part of the developing plan for strong-arming independent gunmakers into a Smith & Wesson-type settlement is to get cities and counties to redirect police-gun purchases toward favored manufacturers such as S&W and any companies that sign similar agreements. But many on police forces see it as playing politics with their lives to select guns based on anything other than their optimality for police use, which requires ease of control and use, speed, accuracy and reliability under extreme conditions. (Smith & Wesson has not been a popular brand in police use.) “Adherence to a particular political philosophy” shouldn’t play a part in gun purchases, Gilbert G. Gallegos, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the Los Angeles Times. A few jurisdictions like Atlanta, Berkeley and San Mateo County, Calif. have signed onto the program, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is planning to stick with its 9-mm Berettas. “Politics aren’t going to enter into how we choose our firearms,” said Capt. Garry Leonard of the department. “When you think of what we do for a living, we just can’t take chances.”
Glock general counsel Paul Jannuzzo said that, in a recent phone call, Housing Secretary Cuomo asked about his company’s sales to police and “made it fairly clear” that those sales would be at risk if the company didn’t play ball. “I think the expression he used was, ‘I have a lot of push with these Democratic mayors,'” said Jannuzzo. “There was no doubt in my mind that I’d just been threatened with economic extortion”. Told about the charge, Secretary Cuomo, ever the model of grace in controversy, retorted: “It’s an interesting response from the subject of an antitrust investigation,” referring to the trade-restraint probe recently launched against the gun industry for allegedly shunning S & W (see March 31). (Richard Simon and Eric Lichtblau, “Police Feel Pressure to Choose the ‘Code'”, Los Angeles Times, Apr. 9).
April 13 — Judge dismisses suit blaming entertainment biz for school shootings. U.S. District Judge Edward Johnstone has dismissed an action on behalf of school shooting victims in Paducah, Ky. against 25 enterprises whose movies, videogames and Internet sites had allegedly incited teenage gunman Michael Carneal to go on his rampage (“Federal judge dismisses lawsuit against movie, video game makers”, AP/Freedom Forum, April 7; “Suit blaming media for Kentucky killings dismissed”, CNN/Reuters, April 7; see July 22 and Nov. 2 commentaries). Plaintiffs vowed to appeal the ruling, which came shortly after a Senate hearing at which conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) lent a sympathetic ear to the lead plaintiff’s charges against the videogame industry (“Witness tells Senate panel: Video games taught teen killer how to shoot”, AP/Freedom Forum, March 22).
Other litigation continues to move forward around the country seeking to blame the media and game makers for school violence, including the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Lt. Col. David Grossman, a former Army psychologist signed as an expert witness by the plaintiffs in the Carneal case, has been much in the press lately denouncing such games as Doom and Quake (“The Games Kids Play”, John Stossel/ABC News 20/20, Mar. 22). And Vermont state senator Tom Bahre (R-Addison) has introduced legislation in that state which would hold makers of graphically violent movies and other media liable for the costs of acts of real-life violence that their products are deemed to have incited. An AP report says Bahre’s bill would “place the burden of proof on those producers to show that their depictions of violence did not cause an actual event.” (“Vermont lawmaker wants to hold media responsible for violence”, AP/Freedom Forum, Dec. 29).
April 13 — Bill Gates and the Nasdaq: why didn’t the Munchkins sing? “When the wicked witch is dead, you expect the Munchkins to break out in song. But that was not the reaction in the technology sector this week, after a federal judge found Microsoft Corp. guilty of behaving like a bully.” Nasdaq, composed heavily of tech firms that Microsoft is supposed to have victimized, fell off a cliff. Paradoxical? “Economists Thomas Hazlett of the American Enterprise Institute and George Bittlingmayer of the University of California at Davis recently published a study in the Journal of Financial Economics documenting that whenever the government’s antitrust suit scores a victory, an index of non-Microsoft computer stocks falls — and when Microsoft wins a round, computer stocks rise.” (Steve Chapman, “The Real Cost of the Microsoft Verdict”, Chicago Tribune, April 6).
April 13 — “Congress passes asset forfeiture bill”. Long awaited reforms will make it harder for the government to seize assets first and ask questions later. “The legislation would shift the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from the property owner to the government. … It allows federal judges to release property to the owner if continued government possession causes substantial hardship to the owner, extends the time a property owner has to challenge a seizure in court and ends the requirement that a person seeking to recover property post a bond with the court worth 10 percent of the property value.” (AP) To placate prosecutors, however, the bill also gives law enforcement officials a number of new powers. (Jim Abrams, “Congress passes asset forfeiture bill”, AP/Topeka Capital-Journal, April 12; Stephen Labaton, “Congress Raises Burden of Proof on Asset Seizures”, New York Times, April 12).
April 13 — Regulation through litigation: opinion pieces. The topic’s starting to arouse significant attention among the commentariat, and not a moment too soon:
* We think he’s joking dept.: Univ. of Colorado law prof Paul Campos (Jurismania) foresees a gigantic class-action suit against “Big Auto” (“Where are next brave lawyers?”, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), April 11).
* “First, tobacco. Then, guns. Now, Microsoft. Does anyone seriously believe the class-action legal industry will stop there?” asks Wall Street Journal editorialist John Fund, who sees reformist sentiment rising: “In North Dakota and Texas, new ‘sunshine’ laws give the legislature oversight of government contracts with outside lawyers.” (“Litigation gold rush”, MS/NBC, April 4).
* Today’s less-than-spontaneous agitations against each newly designated Industry-To-Hate remind the Kansas City Star‘s E. Thomas McClanahan of China’s old “mass political campaigns” in which the populace was whipped up to support a purge of the “Four Bads” or of “capitalist roaders”. Quotes this site’s editor, too (“Bypassing the checks and balances”, Apr. 10 (click “columns”, then scroll list))
* “None dare call it extortion” is the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s take (editorial, April 7).
April 12 — Gore amid friendly crowd (again). Bill Clinton and Al Gore have been racing around the country to attend a seemingly unending series of fund-raisers thrown by such prominent personal-injury lawyers as Dallas’s Fred Baron (see Feb. 14) and Cincinnati’s Stanley Chesley (see Mar. 30). Last Thursday it was the turn of Palm Beach, Fla. tobacco-fee tycoon Robert Montgomery (see Aug. 21-22), for a $10,000-a-plate dinner graced by the Veep.
The Washington Post‘s Ceci Connolly writes that at yet another recent lawyer-hosted fund-raiser — this one at the home of Houston’s Denman Heard — Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell said, with Gore looking on, “we are proud as a party to have the support of the trial lawyers. It is nothing we apologize for”. “Gore summed up the differences this way: ‘We fight for the working people, for those who don’t have the resources,” he said. Republicans ‘draw from the wealthiest, most powerful and well-heeled.'”
To be sure, Mr. Montgomery, who hosted last Thursday’s Gore event, could give most GOPers a lesson or two about what it means to be powerful and well-heeled: together with some colleagues he pulled off the Florida tobacco caper, representing the state government and nabbing what was at the time the biggest legal fee in history, $3.4 billion, his own share amounting (per George magazine’s estimate) to some $678 million. Montgomery is also a longtime donor to political candidates ranging from the Kennedy family to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all that the Democratic National Committee raised more money in the first quarter than its Republican counterpart. (Ceci Connolly, “Democrats Have No Argument with Trial Lawyers”, Washington Post, April 9; Jonathan Salant, “Democrats raise more money than Republicans”, AP/CNN, April 7).
A proper account of the Florida tobacco affair for a national readership remains to be written. For an introduction, check out the following 1998 coverage by Lucy Morgan in the St. Petersburg Times: “Tobacco trial lawyers say they had to hire [Governor Lawton] Chiles’ friends”, March 25, 1998; “Tobacco team lawyer is called to account”, March 31, 1998 (“Did lawyers hired by Florida to fight the tobacco industry cough up more than $100,000 for the Clinton/Gore campaign in hopes of currying favor with the administration? And were those campaign contributions illegally disguised as legal expenses — and actually paid by the tobacco industry?” — with eyebrow-raising details about a Fort Lauderdale meeting between the tobacco trial team and Vice President Gore on Oct. 15, 1996, shortly before the 1996 election); as well as “Tobacco and torts” (editorial by the paper), Dec. 19, 1998 (calling the eventual arbitration award to lawyers “breathtakingly excessive … It’s almost disgusting to think of such riches going to a few people who gave relatively little time and expertise to ‘earn’ them. … receiving billions of dollars in fees for a case that never went to trial is utterly unconscionable. … [the lawyers have put] a face on greed”.) (DURABLE LINK)
April 12 — Triumph of plastic foliage. New York Times home and garden section advises that artificial plants are making inroads in both interior commercial decor and landscaping; unlike the live kind, “they don’t house pests or provoke allergic reactions (and subsequent lawsuits)”. (William L. Hamilton, “The Flowers That Bloom in Spring, Ha Ha”, New York Times, April 6).
April 12 — Cops shoot civilian; city blames maker of victim’s gun. In a suit filed last week, the city of Riverside, Calif. says gunmaker Lorcin Engineering should bear legal responsibility for the shooting by Riverside police of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller of Rubidoux, because it sold the weapon she had on her lap at the time she was shot in a locked, idling car. Officers from the force were later fired for the tactics they used in the shooting, which led to a wrongful-death lawsuit by Miller’s survivors. The city is now seeking to dodge that suit by impleading Lorcin on the theory that had it provided better user training Miller might have known not to keep a gun on her person in a way that approaching officers might interpret as threatening to them, though her gun was later found to be inoperable. Lorcin shuttered its plant in nearby Mira Loma and declared bankruptcy last year, but an attorney for the city suggests it still has money. “Every single claim against Lorcin was dismissed, but at a very expensive cost of $100,000 here, $100,000 there” in legal fees, said owner James Waldorf. (Lisa O’Neill Hill and John Welch, Riverside Press-Enterprise, April 7) (discuss at Press-Enterprise site).
April 12 — Endorsed again. “oh man, this is great. overlawyered.com. check the left side for ‘personal responsibility’ …” — thus one of the April 10 entries on Array, a weblog specializing in art and applied digital technology, but with a wide miscellany of other topics in there too.
April 11 — Stuart Taylor, Jr., on Smith & Wesson deal. His new column on law-stretching gun and tobacco suits is must reading even aside from the handsome plug it gives this website (see below). “One thing I am sure of is that the Framers of the Constitution created Congress — and assigned to it ‘all legislative powers herein granted’ — to set policy for the nation on such complex questions of social engineering [as gun control]. They also made it hard to enact legislation unless backed by a fairly broad national consensus. That’s a far cry from what’s going on now….
“[T]he gun litigation represents a deeply disturbing way of making public policy. It was started by private lawyers and municipalities with big financial interests at stake. The courts have largely been bystanders as the Clinton Administration and its allies have sought to bludgeon gunmakers into settling before trial.” (Stuart Taylor Jr., “Guns and Tobacco: Government by Litigation”, National Journal, March 27; NJ yanks these free columns after offering them briefly as a teaser, so catch this one now.)
P.S. Okay, and now about that plug: “For a fuller taste of these and other peculiar workings of our legal system, with copious links to news reports, check out an amusingly depressing Web site called Overlawyered.com, created and edited by Walter K. Olson of the conservative-libertarian Manhattan Institute,” writes Taylor. “Amusingly depressing” — an ideal slogan for our banner ads (if we ever get around to devising them; someone wanna help volunteer?).
April 11 — Oops: D.A.’s and judge’s fwding of sex pic deemed “unfortunate event”. Dateline Las Vegas: “A pornographic photograph sent by e-mail to dozens of Clark County employees originated from a deputy district attorney’s computer. The e-mail was then forwarded to a senior judge who passed it on to other county workers.” Apparently the sexually explicit photo was meant to reach only one or two recipients, but was inadvertently blind-cc’d to a longer list. County manager Dale Askew said those involved likely would be suspended without pay. “Needless to say employees were not happy receiving it because it came across their computer unsolicited,” said county spokesman Doug Bradford, who called the episode “an unfortunate event.” How lucky for all concerned that they weren’t at a big private firm, where skittishness over harassment liability might have gotten the senders fired. (Adrienne Packer, “Obscene e-mail traced to deputy DA”, Las Vegas Sun, Feb. 9). (DURABLE LINK)
April 11 — Krugman on MS: his “blood runs cold”. “I don’t know anyone outside Seattle who is really pro-Microsoft. But a lot of us are, at least mildly, anti-anti-Microsoft. That is, we worry that the crusade against Bill Gates sets a bad, even dangerous precedent. …
“The anti-anti-Microsoft case does not deny that there is some truth to that story [that Redmond’s market dominance and hard-guy tactics caused a climate of fear among its competitors], but asserts that taking punitive action will be the worse of two evils because it will create a different, and worse, climate of fear — fear that success itself will be punished. Today Microsoft, tomorrow Intel and eventually (as soon as somebody figures out what it does) Cisco.”
“… [W]hen I hear that a coalition of states is demanding damages from Microsoft, as if Windows caused lung cancer; well, my blood runs cold. I know that there is an intellectually respectable case against Microsoft, but I’ve got a bad feeling about where we are going.” (Paul Krugman, “Rights of Bill”, New York Times, April 9).
April 11 — Chat into the microphone, please. Securities and Exchange Commission announces plans to acquire automated software to trawl websites, Usenet and Yahoo/AOL-type bulletin boards searching for phrases like “get rich quick” and “free stock” which might signal illicit securities promotion. The results, including email addresses and other identifying information about posters, will be copied into a giant database and indexed for the convenience of SEC investigators whose job is to file civil charges against persons suspected of stock-jobbing. One company invited to submit bids on the system, the big accounting firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, has already bowed out of consideration, saying it had “serious concerns about the implications for the privacy of individuals”. The proposal “is equivalent to, in my opinion, wiretapping … the equivalent of planting a bug,” said Larry Ponemon, a partner at the firm in charge of privacy issues. Members of Congress have begun to express concern: “Engaging in such a wide level of monitoring will have a chilling effect on free speech online,” Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) wrote to SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt. “While I understand the need to prevent securities fraud, federal agents should not be allowed to sift through the conversations of millions of innocent parties in order to do so.”
Levitt says there’s little difference in principle betwen current practice — in which flesh-and-blood SEC attorneys laboriously traverse the Web looking individually for possible indicia of fraud — and the new proposal. The commission also says it will keep the data confidential and throw out information that does not establish wrongdoing. Other federal agencies are eager to follow the SEC’s lead, such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has begun talking to vendors: “For us it’s a very exciting prospect,” says acting CFTC director of enforcement Phyllis J. Cela. (Michael Moss, “SEC’s Plan to Snoop for Crime on Web Spraks a Debate Over Privacy”, Wall Street Journal/ZDNet, March 28; Marcy Gordon, “SEC Plans Web Surveillance System”, AP/Excite, March 29; Michelle Finley, “SEC Plan: Free Speech Violation?”, Wired News, March 29; “House panel questions automated surveillance by SEC”, Reuters/Excite, April 4). (DURABLE LINK)
April 11 — Attention librarians. Starting immediately, we’ll be dividing each new month’s archives into three, rather than two, sections; that way readers with low bandwidth won’t have to wait quite so long for those pages to load.
April 28-30 — Degrees of intimidation. Diploma mills (self-proclaimed universities willing to mail out meaningless degrees, in exchange for what is often substantial “tuition”) have flourished lately and efforts to rein them in have foundered, writes a specialist in the field. “In 1982 the American Council on Education announced an impending, hard-hitting, and uncompromising book (I hoped) on fake schools. But by the time Diploma Mills: Degrees of Fraud finally emerged in 1988, the lawyers had marched in, and the book was, at best, soft-hitting and compromised. The authors apologized for lack of specificity (not a single currently operating fake was named) because of ‘the present litigious era.’
“Yes, schools do sue. … I’ve been sued eight times by schools …. Only one ever got to court, and that was thrown out by the judge, as frivolous, in minutes. But there is a cost in both dollars and, my wife will confirm, despondency.” (John Bear, “Diploma Mills: The $200 Million a Year Competitor You Didn’t Know You Had”, University Business, March) (via Arts & Letters Daily).
April 28-30 — Collateral damage in Drug War. Authorities earlier this month arrested Dorothy Jean Manning, 66, Ramona Ann Beck, 61, and Armitta Mae Granicy, 59, for selling iodine crystals without keeping tabs on buyers’ names and vehicle IDs as required by law. All three women work at Granicy’s Feed Store in rural Lancaster, Calif. and have been charged with repeatedly selling the crystals to undercover agents despite warnings. Ranchers use iodine crystals to treat hoof ailments in livestock, but they are also a so-called “precursor chemical” in the production of methamphetamine. (Reason Express, April 17 — third item). (Update: see letter to the editor, May 18, 2001). And Denver’s famous bookstore, the Tattered Cover, is locked in a courtroom battle with the North Metro Drug Task Force over demands that it disclose the identity of the purchaser of two books found in an Adams County residence which also contained a methamphetamine lab; the books, apparently bought from the Tattered Cover with a credit card, contained instructions for manufacturing the drug. “On April 5, five plain clothes Denver police officers showed up at the bookstore with [a] search warrant and insisted on conducting a search” but agreed to wait until a court resolved the situation. (Cheryl Arvidson, “Denver bookstore’s sales records sought in drug-lab investigation”, Freedom Forum, April 20). Update Oct. 27-29: judge orders store to hand over records.
April 28-30 —Legal Times (Washington, D.C.) “Web of the Week”. One of the nicest encomia we’ve received lately makes us anxious to live up to it. “Lawyers and litigation have been lampooned at least since Dickens. Now Walter Olson of the Manhattan Institute, a longtime critic of the excesses of litigation, has launched overlawyered.com, a Web site that gathers daily nearly every story of this type from the media and gently skewers the profession. It remains just this side of acerbic, which actually makes the site more effective. Excessive fees, silly cases, outlandish extenuations, and my favorite, ridiculous warning labels, abound here. Read it and laugh, but take much of it to heart.” (Jonathan Groner, Legal Times, April 10).
April 28-30 — Updating Jane Austen. If the author were writing today. … “After recovering memories of childhood abuse by their father, the novel ends with the Bennet sisters awash in cash, their futures secure, and their romantic lives no longer held in thrall to the economic oppression of the patriarchy.” (Mark Lasswell, “Get real, Jane”, Women’s Quarterly, Winter 2000 (via The Occasional)).
April 27 — Sock puppet lawsuit. Internet pet supply enterprise Pets.com has filed a federal lawsuit against Robert Smigel, a writer with NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien”, over Smigel’s creation of “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog”, a satirical character reminiscent of Pets.com’s own highly visible sock-puppet mascot. “‘Triumph is a rubber-dog that … regularly uses vulgarity, insults both the humans and other dogs around him and often conducts physical attacks of a sexual nature on female dogs,’ the complaint says.” (“The sock that roared”, TVBarn, April 25; “Pets.com socks it to ‘Late Night’ writer”, AP/FindLaw, April 26, link now dead).
In more news from the world of doll litigation, Barbie-maker Mattel, Inc., has sued the prominent San Diego law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps for slander and libel. The case arises out of a longstanding legal dispute between the giant toy company and one of Luce Forward’s clients, the Collegiate Doll Co., over sales of dolls by the latter company that allegedly infringed on “college cheerleader” versions of Barbie. Mattel now claims to have been falsely accused of illegalities and unethical conduct in an article published in Luce’s newsletter and on its website. Previously, Mattel successfully sought judicial sanctions against a Luce partner who, having weathered earlier rounds of litigation involving the curvaceous plaything, “began to tout himself as an expert in Barbie disputes,” and whose sanctionable misconduct allegedly included tossing Barbie dolls during a videotaped meeting of counsel. (Gail Diane Cox, “Barbie’s Backers Smack Firm With Slander Suit”, CalLaw, March 2).
April 27 — Let’s go to the tape. “Brian Lopina, a lobbyist for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America [recently broke] the Golden Rule of Washington Voicemail [, which] states that the only message you should ever leave on anyone’s machine is Call me …. Lopina tried to intimidate Sen. Rod Grams, the Minnesota Republican, out of backing a bill that would scrutinize asbestos suits more carefully. … [He] warned Grams that ATLA was bankrolling a set of highly effective ads against senators (like Montana Republican Conrad Burns) who weren’t dancing to the lawyers’ tune. He offered to send over a transcript of the ads, ‘so you’ll see exactly how hard-hitting this stuff is. I think you really ought to get off this bill.’ Lopina claimed to have been calling Grams as a ‘friend,’ and ATLA denied that he’d made the calls at its request. Yeah, sure — he works as a lobbyist but makes threatening calls about legislation in his spare time.” (Christopher Caldwell, “Tele-Grams”, New York Press, April 19-25). The Wall Street Journal beat us to this one with their editorial Tuesday: “The New Commissars”, April 25 (online subscribers only)). See also Dane Smith and Greg Gordon, “Grams said lobbyist tried to ‘blackmail’ him”, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, April 11 (reprinted at Coalition for Asbestos Resolution site).
April 27 — Legal Intelligencer sees Fidel’s sunny side. Whatever divergent views we may hold on the armed seizure and prospective return of Elian Gonzalez, you’d think we could all at least agree in execrating the brutal dictator whose misrule the little boy and his mother were fleeing. But no, even at this late date, the old monster has his defenders — including, it seems, some in the legal profession. Last month Philadelphia’s couldn’t-be-more-respectable Legal Intelligencer ran a kissy account of how fourteen American lawyers went to Cuba on a “fact-finding” mission sponsored by the far-left National Lawyers Guild, met the great man himself, and came back singing his praises. “There is a sense of respect for other human beings there,” effused attorney Joshua Rubinsky. “A respect you don’t see [in the United States] in terms of labor relations.”
Queasy yet? There’s much more. “Fidel Castro is a lawyer,” the account begins (which, for the record, is meaner than anything this site has ever said about lawyers). “He graduated from Cuba’s Havana University with a law degree in 1950, and, although he never practiced law, his political influence has helped shape Cuba’s legal system” — “political influence” being here a remarkable euphemism for the Communist strongman’s tendency to murder or jail opponents and critics. The story proceeds to quote attorney Gail Lopez-Henriquez, who like Mr. Rubinsky practices labor law in Philadelphia, as saying: “People we met really believe that they have a system that has some very important principles and structures that protect people’s rights, dignity and material needs.” The Legal Intelligencer never sees fit to quote even a single critic of the Cuban regime, or indeed anyone outside the admiring circle of trip-goers. (April White, “Meeting Castro Highlight of Study Trip To Cuba for Group of U.S. Labor Lawyers”, The Legal Intelligencer, March 16).
April 25-26 — New page on Overlawyered.com: Free speech & media law. Newest addition to our collection of topical pages covers libel, slander and defamation suits; the use of litigation to suppress or intimidate criticism and political opposition; harassment law’s effects in curbing email jokes, cartoons and workplace banter; efforts to hold makers of shoot-’em-up movies and videogames liable for damages when their customers commit acts of violence; regulation of campaign speech; copyright, broadcast law, and other topics relating to free expression and media law. Also: we’ve updated the desktop links on the front page’s left column, dropping some less-used links, adding a half-dozen new, and creating a new section for “Science/skepticism” links, most of which had previously been found in “Diversions”.
April 25-26 — Celera stockholders vent at Milberg Weiss. Lively discussion breaks out on Motley Fool investment bulletin boards concerning suit filed by class-action filers Milberg Weiss against genome-mapping pioneer Celera after stock price drop (suit announcement). Most of the participants are decidedly unhappy about the suit’s filing, and their email protests succeeded in drawing some response from Milberg Weiss attorneys. Some jumping-off points to browse the discussion: messages #13466, 13594 (cites this site), 13775, 13806, 14041 (view threads).
April 25-26 — Preferred seating. ADA lawsuits against movie theaters proliferate, with a D.C. law firm last week seeking class-action status on behalf of millions of hearing-impaired moviegoers against two of the biggest cinema chains over their failure to install expensive captioning and other assistive technology. (“Hearing-impaired moviegoers sue Lowes [sic] and AMC”, Bloomberg/Boston Globe, April 21, link now dead). In Oregon, where activists filed a suit earlier this year seeking mandatory captioning (see February 19-21 commentary), they’ve now filed another one charging that it’s unlawful for wheelchair users to be seated in front where they may be obliged to crane their necks at an uncomfortable angle (Ashbel S. Green, “Regal Cinemas sued over seats”, The Oregonian (Portland), April 12). The Fifth Circuit, however, recently turned two thumbs down on a similar lawsuit out of El Paso. (Nathan Koppel, “Court Failed to Recognize Disabled Movie Patrons’ Difficulties, Expert Says”, Texas Lawyer, April 13).
April 25-26 — Toronto coach: ich kann nicht anders. Toronto Raptors basketball coach Butch Carter has filed a defamation lawsuit against departed player Marcus Camby, who recently described Carter as a “liar” and unpopular with the team. Camby, who alleges that Carter assured him he’d be kept on the team just before the front office traded him to the New York Knicks, said, “No one likes him and no one wants to play for him. That is the kind of guy that he is.” “I’m responding to an article of untruths in the only manner I can,” said Carter, on the question of why he was suing. “That’s through the courts.” You might think he’s overlooking at least one other manner of responding short of litigation, namely airing his side of the story in the press. Carter hasn’t been shy about doing that in the past: in an upcoming book, he alleges that one of his own former coaches back at Indiana is a “bully” and “self-serving coward” and has used racial slurs. (“Carter would withdraw suit for apology”, ESPN, April 23; “Raptors’ Carter Defends Camby Suit”, Yahoo/AP, April 24; “Carter claims Knight used racial slur”, AP/ESPN, April 14). Update: Carter soon dropped the suit (see May 4 commentary).
April 25-26 — Gray sameness of modern playgrounds. “Is there anything lamer than these new ‘safe’ playgrounds? Where is the fun in the Big Hollow Plastic Cube with Holes Cut in It? Or the Three Axles with Triangular Plastic Spinning Things for Playing Tic-Tac-Toe? … And yet overprotective surrogate mothers from the National Program for Playground Safety insist that still not enough is being done to protect the children. … Give me spinal injury inducing monkey bars over this modern plastic junk any day.” (Eigengrau weblog, April 20 entry).
April 25-26 — Thought for the day. “The history of censorship is a history of folly and cruelty” — Judge Richard Posner in Miller v. Civil City of South Bend, Seventh Circuit, 1990; quoted in the substantial new profile of him in Lingua Franca (James Ryerson, “The Outrageous Pragmatism of Richard Posner”, May).
April 25-26 — Regulation by litigation: what to do? Some ideas that might curb courts’ and trial lawyers’ penchant for acting as surrogate legislatures, including a “Model Separation of Powers Act”, a Sunshine Act requiring that governments disclose the manner in which they hire outside attorneys, and an act making clear that government can’t oust traditional defenses to liability in the course of filing third-party lawsuits over Medicaid reimbursement and the like (assuming governments should be filing such suits at all). (Victor E. Schwartz and Leah Lorber, “Regulation Through Litigation Has Just Begun: What You Can Do To Stop It”, “Briefly…” Series, National Legal Center for the Public Interest, November 1999 (PDF)).
April 24 — Scented hair gel, deodorant could mean jail time for Canadian youth. “A Halifax-area teenager may face criminal charges for wearing Dippity Do hair gel and Aqua Velva deodorant to school after his teacher complained to the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Mounties] about his fragrant abuse of the school’s no-scent policy. Gary Falkenham, 17, has twice been suspended from Duncan MacMillan High School in Sheet Harbour, N.S., for violating the school’s strict policy banning perfumes, aftershaves and scented hairsprays and deodorants.” (Shaune MacKinlay and Adrian Humphreys, “Student may face criminal charge for wearing smelly hair gel”, Halifax Daily News/National Post, Apr. 19. More on the “scent-free” movement, which has made Halifax its poster city: Larry M. Greenburg, “One City Turns Up Its Nose Against the Use of Perfume”, Wall Street Journal, July 28, 1999, reprinted at Junk Science; Betty Bridges, “Halifax Leads the Way With Fragrance-Free Policies”, Flipside, Sept. 1999; Dalhousie U. policy, Environmental Health Network, Fragranced Products Information Network).
April 24 — Court rejects “telephone sex slave” charge. A federal judge has dismissed Doris Ford’s lawsuit charging that Hartford businessman and power broker Arthur T. Anderson had coerced her into being his highly paid “telephone sex slave”. Ms. Ford did not allege that the couple had had physical contact since 1977, and the judge said that even if it were true that the two had more recently engaged in sexually oriented telephone conversations and that she had received sums in excess of $150,000 from Mr. Anderson, the relationship could at most be described as contractual. Anderson’s lawyer says his client had made payments to Ford for years to keep her from revealing their long-ago extramarital relationship. Ms. Ford’s lawyer, Norman A. Pattis, conceded that his claim invoking the federal Violence Against Women Act was “creatively pleaded and probably on the cutting edge.” (Mark Pazniokas, “Judge Rejects Sex Slave Suit”, Hartford Courant, Apr. 21, link now dead).
April 24 — Less suing = less suffering. New England Journal of Medicine study on crash injuries before and after Saskatchewan’s introduction of no-fault insurance finds “the elimination of compensation for pain and suffering is associated with a decreased incidence and improved prognosis of whiplash injury.” Not only did fewer people claim whiplash under the no-fault system, but no-fault’s much faster resolution of claims appeared to be strongly correlated with faster recovery, less intense pain and fewer depressive symptoms. (J. David Cassidy and other authors, “Effect of Eliminating Compensation for Pain and Suffering on the Outcome of Insurance Claims for Whiplash Injury”, New England Journal of Medicine, April 20). A related editorial in NEJM calls the findings “dramatic” and adds: “An obvious concern is whether this change simply forced severely injured patients to suffer in silence without appropriate compensation for ongoing impairments. Several considerations suggest that this explanation is unlikely.” The medical harm done by the fault system, the editorialist proposes, is not so much in encouraging conscious malingering as in generating excessive medical attention and overly alarmist diagnoses that can become self-fulfilling. The editorial also cites studies from Australia and Lithuania suggesting that the legal environment has a profound impact on the amount of perceived pain and disability experienced by whiplash sufferers (“Pain and Public Policy“). Update: trial lawyers’ response (see June 26).
April 24 — Maryland: knowledge, notice not needed to sue landlords over lead. By a 4-to-3 margin, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that apartment owners can be made to face personal-injury claims on behalf of children who ingest lead paint in their units regardless of whether the tenant ever complained about the paint or asked that it be corrected, and regardless of whether the owner knew there was a hazardous condition. The decision overruled a Baltimore Circuit Court jury decision and is expected to open the gates to more widespread legal action against building owners. (Jim Haner, “Landlords can be liable, appellate court rules”, Baltimore Sun, Apr. 21) (more on Maryland and on lead-paint litigation: see Mar. 15, Oct. 19 commentaries).
April 21-23 — The unconflicted Prof. Daynard. On January 8 of this year the British Medical Journal published an article entitled “Tobacco litigation worldwide” by Prof. Richard Daynard of Northeastern University School of Law and two co-authors (Clive Bates of Action on Smoking and Health in London, and Australian barrister Neil Francey). Prof. Daynard is by far reporters’ favorite academic to call when they’re looking for a quote supportive of lawsuits against cigarette makers, and his BMJ article is very much in line with the drift of his previously voiced opinions: it praises such lawsuits as a “productive and promising strategy” for public health, and deplores as “unfortunate” the disapproving attitude toward such lawsuits taken by British courts. So far, so routine. But then at the end of the article appears the following notice: “Competing interests: None declared.”
No competing interests declared? Not any?
Daynard directs the Tobacco Control Resource Center & Tobacco Products Liability Project, and from the way he’s been described in countless press clips over the years (samples: coverage originating in the Washington Post, L. A. Times, AP), you might conclude that he’s contented himself with rendering whatever assistance he can to such suits as a kind of cheerleader from the sidelines, with nothing at stake beyond ideological zeal. So it might have come as a distinct surprise when it was reported in late 1998 that for some time he’d been (in his own view) the owner of an actual contingency share in moneys to be legally extracted from tobacco companies. In December of that year, arbitrators awarded a staggering $8.2 billion in fees to the small band of plaintiff’s attorneys who represented the states of Mississippi, Florida and Texas in the tobacco-Medicaid litigation. At this point we turn the narration over to the National Law Journal: “Richard A. Daynard, the Northeastern University School of Law professor who is a veteran anti-tobacco activist, asked arbitrators for fees for his work on the Florida case, represented by former brother-in-law David Boies, of Armonk, N.Y.’s Boies & Schiller L.L.P. [later famed as the Clinton Justice Department’s lawyer in the Microsoft case — ed.] The arbitrators ruled that they lacked jurisdiction over his claim, leaving him empty-handed. Professor Daynard also says Mr. [Richard] Scruggs promised him 5% of the fees earned by his firm and by the Charleston, S.C., firm Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole P.A. from the state lawsuits. [emphasis added] Taken together, the two firms represent the lion’s share of states that sued the tobacco industry. Mr. Scruggs said he never made any such promise.” (Bob Van Voris, “Tobacco Road Not Gold for All”, Dec. 28, 1998 – Jan. 4, 1999).
How much would 5 percent of the fees won by the Scruggs and Ness Motley firms amount to? Last year George estimated that the Scruggs firm was going to reap more than $1 billion from its state tobacco representation (see Aug. 21 commentary), and last fall the Dallas Morning News estimated that the Ness Motley firm was going to bag more than $3 billion (see Nov. 1 commentary). If both those estimates were borne out, the share that Prof. Daynard claimed had been privately promised to him might be reckoned at 0.05 x $4 billion, or $200 million — relying as we must on back-of-the-envelope calculations, since far less about this whole topic is a matter of public record than one would like.
Even today, after such eye-openers, most media reports go right on characterizing Prof. Daynard using such anodyne formulas as “head of an anti-tobacco clearinghouse” (AP), “director of a group that encourages lawsuits against tobacco companies” (AP again), and head of a “pressure group” (Sydney Morning Herald). Yet while relaxed standards may prevail on such matters in everyday reporting, medical journals are supposed to be different — a whole lot different. BMJ‘s policy on competing interests reaches back to require disclosure of financial entanglements at any point extending back over five years. Indeed, in recent years the once cozy world of medical journals has been convulsed by a series of controversies over whether existing standards on the disclosure of competing interests have been too lax, as when researchers have been allowed to opine in journal pages about the efficacy of drug compounds without revealing pecuniary ties they might have to drugmaking firms (“Beyond conflict of interest: Transparency is the key”, BMJ, August 1, 1998).
One of those who wondered whether BMJ‘s policy had been lived up to in the Daynard case was Martha Perske of Darien, Ct., who wrote editor Richard Smith in January to call some of the pertinent facts to his attention and ask whether a clarification would be forthcoming in the journal’s pages. Ms. Perske informs this website that Dr. Smith wrote back agreeing that the question deserved to be looked into, and promised to get back to her. That was at the end of February; since then she says she’s heard nothing. Dr. Smith’s own August 1998 editorial on the subject states: “If we learn after publication that authors had competing interests that they did not disclose then we will tell readers.” Later developments: letters, Jan. 31 and Jun. 13, 2001; posts, Aug. 2 and Dec. 17, 2001 (following a persistent campaign by Ms. Perske, and more than a year and a half after the original article, BMJ finally in Oct. 2001 semi-discloses to readers Daynard’s ties to the litigation.) (DURABLE LINK)
April 21-23 — Overlawyered schools: three views. Your chances of being murdered in an American school are almost vanishingly small, but your chances of imagining yourself living through an Orwell novel during your time there are not so remote:
* Now that the White House has turned thumbs down on a “preposterous” plan to set aside a $50 million compensation fund for Columbine victims, a lawyer for survivors says, “We have no recourse but to file suit.” Vincent Carroll of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reacts: “‘No recourse,’ he says, as if suing people who had nothing to do with the shootings were as unavoidable as breathing. Yet the attorneys’ offer to drop their litigation for a multimillion dollar fund does have the beneficial effect of eliminating all pretense of what the Columbine lawsuits will be about. Not some noble quest to uncover the truth, it turns out, but money. The fund proposal is the proof.” Much more worth reading here too (“Lawsuits Take Therapy’s Place”, April 16)
* Slashdot’s Jon Katz pays a visit to the Pinkerton Corp. to protest the new hotline it runs for North Carolina school-informants (see April 7-9 commentary) and learns “something I hadn’t quite grasped: the anonymous reporting culture is a growing business, now deeply entrenched in the United States, a result of the victimization movement and lawsuit epidemic rampant for nearly a generation. Encouraged by federal and local governments, and many corporate and educational institutions, hotlines operate all over the country to report date rape, sexual harassment, abuse, and other forms of brutality and insensitivity. … Pinkerton itself runs more than 800 such lines. It was inevitable, said Jim, that they would move into schools, and that Pinkerton would extend its security expertise and set them up. … I was transfixed by the idea of a democratic country whose response to social problems was to create an entire new tradition of informing.” (Jon Katz, “Showdown with the Pinkertons”, Slashdot.org, April 13)
* Meanwhile, school authorities run into obstacles in the form of numerous federal laws and court doctrines, notably the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when they try to discipline, suspend or transfer students who genuinely do misbehave in serious ways, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz (“Get the lawyers out of schools”, New York Daily News, Apr. 16).