April 2001 archives, part 3


April 30 – Michigan prisoner sues for recognition as Messiah. “A prisoner who claims he is God has sued the U.S. government, the state of Michigan, a book publishing company, a radio program and several others.” The case of inmate Chad De Koven, 43, reflects a more serious problem: in spite of reforms at both the federal and state level that have aimed at curbing unmeritorious suits by those behind bars, “Michigan Assistant Attorney General Leo Friedman heads a division of 19 lawyers who do nothing but handle prison litigation.” (Crystal Harmon, Bay City Times, March 28). Update May 14: judge dismisses case in 22-page opinion.

April 30 – “States Mull Suit Against Drug Companies”. Latest nominee for Next Tobacco designation are the folks who’ve allegedly charged too much for saving our lives: “In an action modeled on their 1998 class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry, at least six states are poised to go to court to try to force pharmaceutical companies to lower prescription prices … Attorneys general in Florida, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Texas are among those considering legal action, officials from some of the offices said. … A catalyst for state legal action is Florida businessman Zachary Bentley, who is going from state to state urging state attorneys general to sue drug manufacturers.” Bentley, himself a disgruntled competitor of the drug companies, says they overstate the average wholesale price of many drugs so as to boost what Medicare and Medicaid programs will pay for them. “Under whistleblower and federal False Claims laws, Bentley gets a portion of any settlement that results from what he’s revealed.” (Mary Guiden, Stateline.org, April 2)(more on False Claims Act: July 30).

April 30 – “Radio ad pulled after lawyers object”. Following protests from the state bar association, the Kentucky transportation department last month agreed to stop airing a traffic-safety radio ad based on a well-worn lawyer joke. The joke? “A car full of lawyers turned over right in front of old man Jenkins’ place. He comes out and buries them all. The sheriff asked old man Jenkins, ‘You sure they were all dead?’ ‘Well,’ says Jenkins. ‘Some said they weren’t. But you know how them lawyers lie.”’ The ad urged motorists to slow down so as not to meet a similar fate. (Jack Brammer, Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, March 27).

April 27-29 – Victory in Albany. Unanimous, long-awaited, and devastating: by a 7-0 vote New York’s highest court yesterday rejected the most important elements of the much-hyped lawsuit Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, which seeks retroactively to tag gun manufacturers with liability for criminal misuse of their products. Answering two questions Cardozo would be proudcertified to them by the federal Second Circuit, the jurists of the New York Court of Appeals declined to impose a new legal duty of gun manufacturers toward anyone who might fall victim to post-sale misuse of guns, and also ruled out the application of “market-share liability”, the adventurous theory by which plaintiff’s lawyers were attempting to impose liability on gunmakers without having to show that their guns figured in particular shootings. Both rulings stand as a reproof to activist federal judge Jack Weinstein, who had kept the Hamilton suit alive despite many indications that it had no grounding in existing law. (Joel Stashenko, “Court says gun manufacturers not liable”, AP/Albany Times-Union, April 26; “N.Y. Gun Ruling Could Have National Impact”, AP/FoxNews.com, April 27; John Caher, “New York Rules Gun Manufacturers Not Liable for Injuries”, New York Law Journal, April 27; read full opinion (PDF) — Firearms Litigation Clearinghouse site).

Other judges have lately thrown out of court municipal antigun suits filed on behalf of New Orleans and Miami (Susan Finch, “N.O. gun suit shot down”, New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 4; Susan R. Miller, “Appeals Court Halts Miami-Dade Suit Against Gun Industry”, Miami Daily Business Review, Feb. 15). And the Florida legislature has voted on largely partisan lines, with Democrats opposed, to join 26 other states in spelling out explicitly that cities, counties and other subdivisions of state government have no authority to file recoupment actions against gun makers and dealers over criminals’ misdeeds (“Florida Legislature Votes to Insulate Gunmakers”. Reuters/Yahoo, April 25; see also Charlotte Observer, April 26) (N.C. bill). Unfortunately, judges have recently allowed novel anti-gunmaker suits to proceed in Chicago and Atlanta; and as the gun-control-through-lawyering crowd knows too well, even a few eventual breakthroughs for their side may be enough to ruin this lawful industry (Todd Lighty and Robert Becker, “Gun victims’ lawsuit against firearms industry can move forward”, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 15).

MORE: Jeff Donn, “Maker of the .44 Magnum turns to golf putters and teddy bears”, AP/Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 14 (after the failure of its attempt to cut a deal with its legal tormentors, S&W struggles to stay afloat; one lawsuit had cost the company $5 million just to be dropped from the case); Tanya Metaksa, “Smith & Wesson’s Deal With the Devil”, FrontPage, April 12; Kris Axtman, “Gunmakers not about to run up white flag”, Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 15. Politicians have begun to move away from reflexive antigun sloganeering as election results have made clear that the supposed antigun consensus in American public opinion is no consensus at all (Michael S. Brown, “Gun Control: What Went Wrong?”, FrontPage, April 26).

April 27-29 – “Iowa Supreme Court says counselors liable for bad advice”. “A high school guidance counselor can be held responsible for giving wrong advice to a student that damages the student’s educational goals, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.” Katie, bar the door! (AP/CNN, April 26).

April 26 – “Legal action prolongs whiplash effects: experts”. Yet another study, this time from researchers at the University of Adelaide, Australia, finds that after auto accidents people experience more pain and quality-of-life deterioration if they are pursuing litigation (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 12) (see April 24, 2000). Also see Kevin Barraclough, “Does litigation make you ill?” British Medical Journal, March 31.

April 26 – Judge offers “court phobia” defense. Court-appointed special masters found that Los Angeles County Judge Patrick Murphy took more than 400 days of unjustified sick leave at taxpayer expense since 1996. They were not “impressed with what they called his ‘evolving defense,’ which began with claims that his political opponents were behind the accusations and ‘matured’ into a defense that he was disabled because of a ‘phobic reaction to judicial activities.’” (Sonia Giordani, “Los Angeles Judge’s ‘Court Phobia’ Defense Falls Flat”, The Recorder, April 12).

April 26 – The law must be enforced. In St. Cloud, Florida, 12-year-old Derrick Thompson tried to cross a street against the traffic and got hit by a truck, to onlookers’ horror. Dazed and bleeding, Derrick got another surprise minutes later when town police handed him a ticket for jaywalking. (Susan Jacobson, “Ticket seen as insult to injury”, Orlando Sentinel, April 13).

April 25 – While you were out: the carbonless-paper crusade. Some people are convinced their health has been damaged by ordinary workplace exposure to the chemicals present in carbonless paper, the material used in pressure-sensitive memo slips and similar office supplies. (“Carbonless Copy Paper — The Injury and Information Network”, carbonless.org). Although the product’s makers, such as Appleton Papers and the Mead Corporation, deny that there’s anything to be feared from working with receptionist’s pads or other multiple forms, a number of news reports have uncritically accepted the idea of a causal link between the paper and the ills complained of — to MSNBC’s Francesca Lyman, for example, “probably thousands” have fallen victim to the scourge, showing how “a seemingly benign product could leave a trail of damage”. (“The carbonless paper caper”, MSNBC, Jan. 17 (page now removed, but GoogleCached); see also Keith Mulvihill, “Sick of Paperwork? Some Office Workers Say It’s the Paper”, New York Times, Sept. 26, 1999 (reg); Tracy Davidson, WCAU-TV Philadelphia “Consumer Alert“). Inevitably, those who feel victimized are filing suits against companies that manufacture the product.

None of the activists have figured more prominently in news stories than Brenda Smith of Virginia Beach, Va., who filed suit in 1993 over a variety of symptoms including “headaches, sinus and allergy problems, skin and eye irritation, sore throats, respiratory infections, bronchitis,” and others, which she believes resulted from exposure to the chemicals in carbonless paper at her job. “The potential for litigation from worker’s compensation to product liability is huge,” she told The American Enterprise. However, the magazine also unearthed one extra little fact which the earlier press reports had neglected to mention: that “the health-afflicted Brenda Smith was addicted to cigarette smoking, which she admitted to TAE when we bothered to ask. Apparently some reporters didn’t think that fact advanced their story.” (“Scan”, The American Enterprise, April/May (scroll down to “Smoking Gun”)) See also Bob Van Voris, “Scents or Nonsense?”, National Law Journal, Nov. 6, 2000. NIOSH review (PDF — very long)(& see letter to the editor, May 18).

April 25 – Value of being able to endure parody without calling in lawyers: priceless. When MasterCard sent its lawyers to do a cease and desist routine on rec.humor.funny over a tasteless parody of its “Priceless” ad campaign, list founder Brad Templeton posted this tart riposte on NetFunny.com (April).

April 24 – Put the blame on games. The lawyer for survivors of a murdered Columbine teacher has sued 25 media companies, mostly makers and distributors of video games whose violence he says incited the perpetrators of the crime. Attorney John DeCamp claims to be “100 percent on the side of the First Amendment” when he isn’t filing actions like this, and equally predictably says it’s not really about the money, which isn’t keeping him from demanding that the defendants fork over $5 billion-with-a-”b”. (Kevin Simpson, “Slain teacher’s family launches suit aimed at media violence”, Denver Post, April 21). Update Mar. 6, 2002: judge dismisses case.

April 24 – Pennsylvania MDs drop work today. “Hundreds of physicians from Southeastern Pennsylvania plan to shut down their offices and leave their hospital posts [Tuesday] to go to Harrisburg to insist that lawmakers enact insurance-tort reforms and give them relief from soaring malpractice-insurance premiums. … According to the Pennsylvania Medical Society, obstetricians in the Philadelphia region pay an average of $84,000 yearly in malpractice insurance, while the same doctors in New Jersey pay about $58,000, and in Delaware, $52,000. Neurosurgeons pay $111,000 for coverage in Philadelphia. If their practices were in New Jersey, the rate would be about $75,000.” (see Jan. 24-25). Timothy Schollenberger, president of the state trial lawyers’ association and evidently a man given to bold denials, says the protest is misplaced: “tort law is not a significant factor in making [malpractice] premiums rise or fall”. Kind of like an oil sheik denying that OPEC crude price hikes have anything to do with the cost of gas at the pump, isn’t it? (Ovetta Wiggins, “Doctors to protest premium increases”, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 23).

April 24 – Bush’s environmental centrism. The press has decided to make President Bush’s supposed anti-environmentalism the story du jour, but in fact “on almost every environmental issue, Bush has upheld the Clinton-Gore position.” (Gregg Easterbrook, “Health Nut”, The New Republic, April 30).

Among Bush proposals to meet with support from many centrists and Democrats is the one for a year-long moratorium on pressure groups’ use of endangered-species lawsuits to drive the agenda of the Fish and Wildlife Service; see Bruce Babbitt, “Bush Isn’t All Wrong About the Endangered Species Act,” New York Times, April 15 (reg); Michael Grunwald, “Bush Seeks To Curb Endangered Species Suits”, Washington Post, April 12 (“The litigation explosion has been so bad, we couldn’t even list species that were going over the edge,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, who directed the service under Clinton. “We asked the courts to let us set our own priorities, but they wouldn’t budge.”)(see Dec. 4, 2000).

April 24 – Washington Post editorial on cellphone suit. We’ve appended highlights from yesterday’s refreshingly blunt Post editorial (“More Dumb Lawsuits”) to the item below on the Angelos onslaught against mobile telephony. Is it too much to hope that the New York Times or L.A. Times will someday start being even half as editorially sensible about litigation issues as the Post is?

April 23 – Sorry, wrong number. As expected, Baltimore tort tycoon Peter Angelos filed suit against 25 defendants including Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson, Verizon, Sprint and Nextel accusing them all of concealing the brain-frying horrors of cellular telephone use. “The suits do not claim that anyone has actually suffered an illness.” (Peter S. Goodman, “Angelos Suits Allege Cellular-Phone Danger”, WashTech.com/ Washington Post, April 19). In an editorial bluntly titled “More Dumb Lawsuits”, the Washington Post declares, “There is now a new way to satisfy the bemused foreigner who asks why a nation so proudly founded upon the rule of law is marked by such contempt for lawyers. Just tell the foreigner about the litigation against cell-phone makers that Peter Angelos began on Thursday.” Moreover, Angelos is demanding a remedy (free headsets) that “makes no sense … Mr. Angelos is seeking to replace a situation in which consumers are free to buy headsets if they choose with one in which they indirectly are forced to pay for them — and to pay Mr. Angelos’s fees into the bargain.” (April 23). Update Oct. 1-2, 2002: court dismisses case.

April 23 – Seventh Circuit rebukes EPA. A U.S. Court of Appeals has rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency, dismissing the Superfund suit in which the agency sought permission to enter and dig up the 16-acre property of John Tarkowski, a disabled and indigent building contractor in Wauconda, Ill. Tarkowski’s habit of accumulating surplus materials, from which he has constructed his house, has annoyed many of his upscale neighbors, but repeated investigations have failed to find any serious contamination on his property. Rejecting the government’s arguments, the appeals court held that EPA “sought a blank check from the court. It sought authorization to go onto Tarkowski’s property and destroy the value of the property regardless how trivial the contamination that its tests disclosed.” And: “In effect, the agency is claiming the authority to conduct warrantless searches and seizures, of a particularly destructive sort, on residential property, despite the absence of any exigent circumstances. It is unlikely, even apart from constitutional considerations, that Congress intended to confer such authority on the EPA.” (“U.S. Court of Appeals Dismisses EPA Suit Threatening to Destroy Elderly Wauconda Man’s Property”, press release from Mayer, Brown & Platt (whose Mark Ter Molen represented Tarkowski pro bono), Yahoo Finance/Business Wire, April 20).

April 23 – If I can’t dance, you can keep your social conservatism. The town of Pound in Virginia’s coal-mining western corner has an ordinance on the books that bans public dancing without a permit. Bill Elam is defying the law by operating his Golden Pine nightclub, while local clergy hope the town sticks to its guns: “I can never see a time when dancing can be approved of, especially with people who are not married,” said one. (“Virginia town outlaws dancing”, Nando Times, April 16).