April 2003 archives, part 1


April 10-13 – Posting slowdown. Updates will be sparse for a while as our editor responds to a family emergency. See you, most likely, early next week. (DURABLE LINK)

April 10-13 – Public Citizen’s bogus numbers. The supposed consumer group now concedes that it put out erroneous numbers which made Pennsylvania doctors look artificially bad (“Watchdog group backs off claim that Pa. doctors top nation’s repeat malpractice payouts”, AP/Scranton Times, Apr. 2; see our Mar. 15-16 report). In January, in a move timed to undercut President Bush’s Scranton speech calling for malpractice reform, Public Citizen claimed that 10.6 percent of Keystone State doctors had paid out on more than one malpractice allegation; it now admits it can verify only a figure of 5.4 percent. The false numbers were widely reported in the press, and the AP last week published an unusual correction (AP/Kansas City Star, Apr. 4). Pennsylvania Medical Society spokesman Chuck Moran called for Public Citizen to apologize: “It’s ironic that they initiated a report called ‘Medical Misdiagnosis: challenging the malpractice claims of the doctor’s lobby’, when, in fact, they are the ones that misdiagnosed the situation.” The accuracy of the group’s figures have also been challenged in Colorado (“Monitoring malpractice” (editorial), Denver Post, Mar. 10).

There is at any rate a more fundamental problem with the litigation lobby’s contention that the current crisis is caused by a small number of bad doctors who attract most malpractice suits and should simply be driven out of practice. As Binghamton, N.Y. neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Riben points out, the number of malpractice lawsuits doctors face often have less to do with their competence than with their specialty and geographic location. “If you look around at physicians that get sued a lot, they tend to be highly prestigious names, people who get difficult cases in difficult specialties where the results are predestined not to be as good as those of people who handle simpler cases, Riben said. ‘Those are the people who have litigation. So it you want to eliminate those people with multiple suits, you would have to eliminate all of our neurosurgeons, all of our orthopedic surgeons, all of our obstetricians, anybody working in an emergency room and everybody reading mammograms,’ he said. ‘I think you would agree if we eliminated those specialties we would not improve health care.’” (Eric Durr, “Docs, public interest groups battle over malpractice issues”, Albany Business Review, Mar. 14). (DURABLE LINK)

April 10-13 – Employers liable for not filtering raunchy spam? At least if workers have complained, employers may be at risk of liability under sexual harassment law if they fail to install blocking software on email inboxes, say various legal experts. Quotes our editor (Declan McCullagh, “Por nspam: Are employers liable?”, CNET News, Apr. 7) (DURABLE LINK)

April 10-13 – Best and worst state courts for business. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce releases the results of a detailed Harris poll of business respondents. The “top five states today as evaluated by corporate America at doing the best job at creating a fair and reasonable litigation environment are: Delaware, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Indiana whereas in 2002 Delaware, Virginia, Washington, Kansas, and Iowa were listed as the top 5. The worst perceived states today are: Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, exactly the same as in 2002.” California scores low marks for punitive damages and treatment of class actions; Hawaii is criticized for onerous discovery and the difficulty of getting weak cases thrown out quickly; New York and Minnesota win plaudits for their handling of scientific and technical evidence. Where does your state rank? (overview) (press release in PDF format) (poll results as Word document) (press conference) (DURABLE LINK)

April 9 – Schools roundup. In Camden, N.J., second grade teacher Eileen Blau has sued student Daniel Allen for running into her in a school hallway at an “excessive rate of speed”, thus inflicting “severe and multiple injuries, some of which are permanent in nature,” according to her suit. Young Allen, who at the time of the incident was 11 and weighed about 90 pounds, didn’t know his family was the target of a claim until the sheriff’s deputy showed up at the door. “He didn’t understand why someone would want to do this to him,” said his mother. “He said ‘Why does she hate me? Why is she doing this. I said I was sorry.’” (Bill Duhart, “Teacher sues student over hall collision”, Cherry Hill, N.J., Courier-Post, Mar. 29). The American Bar Association Journal presents an overview of suits arising when girls aren’t picked for the cheerleading squad (Stephanie Francis Cahill, “Bring It On”, Apr. 4; see Jun. 4, 2001). And “[a] group of attorneys who sued Mississippi schools for millions of dollars on behalf of custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers has turned to Alabama, filing more than 60 similar lawsuits”. (Scott Parrott, “Local school systems sued”, Tuscaloosa News, Apr. 4). More on the Jackson, Miss.-based School Litigation Group, which according to one of its principals, former congressman and secretary of agriculture Mike Espy, “takes a contingency fee of between 40 percent and 50 percent, depending on the complexity of the case”: Gary Young, “Overtime Suits 101″, National Law Journal, Mar. 19. (DURABLE LINK)

April 7-8 – Bag of treasures. Cornell Curry, 57 and homeless in New York City, says the Partnership for the Homeless’s drop-in center on W. 23rd St. negligently lost a duffel bag of his belongings last fall; he had been unable to stop by to retrieve the belongings because he was spending three weeks in jail after being arrested for public urination. The shelter “admits it did toss one of Curry’s bags in the garbage, but said that one contained only three soiled pieces of clothing.” Au contraire, says Curry in his lawsuit: he avers that the contents of the lost duffel bag included “an $18,000 star sapphire ring, a $4,000 gold watch, $200 in cash and ‘extremely valuable’ photographs, including his parents’ 1937 wedding photo”, entitling him to $2 million in compensatory and $2 million in punitive damages. Last month Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Rosalyn Richter denied a motion to throw out the claim: “It is simply too early to resolve whether the plaintiff did, in fact, leave the bag in the defendant’s possession and whether the plaintiff also shares some responsibility for the alleged loss,” Richter said. (Helen Peterson, “Homeless, or Mister money bag?”, New York Daily News, Mar. 20). (DURABLE LINK)

April 7-8 – Malpractice crisis hits sports-team docs. Some of organized sports’ most memorable highlights have come when athletes played through pain and injury, but increasingly the result is to create a risk of litigation against team physicians, who are exposed to monetary damages that are potentially enormous given their patients’ potential loss of earning power. Some doctors are withdrawing from the care of professional athletes, and organized football is discussing schemes to indemnify team doctors for their escalating insurance bills. (Jason Cole, “With malpractice rates skyrocketing, many doctors are hesitant to care for professional athletes”, Miami Herald, Apr. 2). Our editor’s Feb. 27 Wall Street Journal piece on lawsuits blaming obstetricians for cerebral palsy is now online, thanks to the folks at Texans for Lawsuit Reform. And welcome readers from Sydney Smith’s excellent medical weblog MedPundit, which has run posts in recent weeks on California’s MICRA and insurance rates, what happens to patients who win awards (plus North Carolina crisis notes), the problem with physician “report cards”, Public Citizen, and a link to this Tallahassee Democrat op-ed (Mar. 3) on how Florida’s malpractice crisis is harming its medical schools. (DURABLE LINK)

April 7-8 – Edwards leads in fund-raising. The North Carolina senator aces his Democratic rivals in the White House money race: “The key to Edwards’ success may have come from trial lawyers, a group of which Edwards is a part and from whom he received 80 percent of political action committee money in recent years.” (“Dem Presidential Hopefuls Compete for Cash”, FoxNews.com, Apr. 2; Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “With $7 Million in Donations, Kerry Trails Democratic Rival”, New York Times, Apr. 3). However, a January poll conducted for the Raleigh News & Observer found the senator none too popular in his home state: “The poll found that 47 percent of active Tar Heel voters disapprove of Edwards’ decision to seek the presidency, while 37 percent approve”. (“Poll: Edwards wouldn’t beat Bush in North Carolina”, AP/Charlotte Observer, Jan. 18) (via “Robert Musil“). (DURABLE LINK)

April 7-8 – U.K.: “Killer wrongly sacked for axe attack”. “A convicted murderer who tried to attack a colleague with an axe was wrongly sacked from his job, an employment tribunal ruled yesterday.” The tribunal in the British Midlands ruled that Preston city council was wrong to fire James Robertson, 50, without notice from his health inspector post after he “brandished the [axe] in an Indian restaurant in Preston after an argument”. However, the tribunal ordered the council to pay only “two weeks’ wages, or £807, for breach of contract,” rejecting a plea for more extensive compensation by Robertson, who “gave evidence while handcuffed to a prison guard.” The council “had employed him when he was released from jail on licence after being convicted of kicking a man to death in Glasgow in 1971.” (Daily Telegraph, Apr. 3) (& welcome Dave Barry readers — the great humorist generously calls us “the always fascinating Overlawyered.com” (archives not working, Apr. 7)). (DURABLE LINK)

April 4-6 – Gun lawsuit preemption moves forward. On Wednesday a House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on H.R. 1036, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which would “prohibit civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages resulting from the misuse of their products by others.” Our editor testified in favor of the measure (his prepared statement). The proceedings were televised live on C-SPAN III and rebroadcast overnight on C-SPAN II (schedule, Apr. 2). Yesterday the full House Judiciary Committee gave its approval to the legislation, with Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher joining all panel Republicans in support of the measure. John Tierney’s New York Times account (“A New Push to Grant Gun Industry Immunity From Suits”, Apr. 4) quotes our editor on the subject and mentions The Rule of Lawyers (see second page of article). (DURABLE LINK)

April 4-6 – C-SPAN again. Speaking of C-SPAN II, the network’s “BookTV” feature will be rebroadcasting our editor’s Manhattan Institute speech on The Rule of Lawyers at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, April 5. (DURABLE LINK)

April 4-6 – A bond too far. Even the editorialists of the New York Times agree that it’s “absurd” and “the kind of ruling that erodes the credibility of our legal system” to require Philip Morris to post a ruinous $12 billion bond before it can appeal the class action ruling of a judge in plaintiff-friendly Madison County, Ill. (“Too Costly an Appeal”, New York Times, Apr. 4)(see Wednesday’s post; more). “As for Judge [Nicholas] Byron, it’s difficult to divine if he was playing jurist or friendly croupier. He sought to sweeten the pot by awarding the State of Illinois $3 billion in punitive damages, out of the total $10.1 billion judgment.” (“A Madison County jackpot”, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 2). Perhaps influenced by the prospect that the state will be thrown this slice of the booty, the Illinois Senate is refusing (for now) to lift a finger to reduce the bonding requirement (“Panel nixes bill to help Philip Morris”, Chicago Sun-Times, Apr. 4)(Update Apr. 30: judge agrees to reduce bond somewhat). (DURABLE LINK)

April 2-3 – Appeals bonds, again. Once again the business end of an otherwise outlandish mega-verdict turns out to be the requirement that a defendant post a bond before it can appeal: Philip Morris says it is unable to put up the requisite $12 billion needed to appeal the recent Madison County, Ill, verdict against it (see Mar. 24). Officials of the fifty states are running around in near-hysteria: they’re bothered not by the possible injustice or community-and-investor disruption involved in bankrupting the giant company, whose holdings include Kraft Foods and Oscar Mayer, but instead by the prospect that an insolvency will jeopardize the flow of billions of dollars into their own coffers under the tobacco settlement. So the AGs, supposedly second to none in their loathing of the tobacco companies, are making noises about intervening to try to get the appeals bond requirement lowered. This is the second time around (at least) for this issue: state governments also mobilized after the Engle tobacco case in Florida threatened bonding requirements high enough to destroy the industry. See also the Loewen case (Ameet Sachdev, “States line up against smoking case bond”, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 1; Neil Buckley, “Philip Morris ‘cannot afford’ $12bn bond”, Financial Times, Apr. 1; “Philip Morris woes hurt stock”, AP/Seattle Times, Apr. 1; “Appeals bond a symptom of need for tort reform”, Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph, Apr. 1; related). (DURABLE LINK)

April 2-3 – After the R.I. club fire. “Ignoring calls from peers to hold off on lawsuits for now, a Providence lawyer [earlier this month] fired the second salvo in what is expected to become a barrage of litigation resulting from the fire at The Station. The lawsuit was filed in Providence Superior Court on behalf of Lisa Kelly of Swansea, a 27-year-old single mom who was among the 99 people killed in the Feb. 20 blaze at the West Warwick, R.I., nightclub. The lawsuit was filed by Ronald Kingsley, the father of Kelly’s daughter, Zoe Jean Kingsley. Kelly’s mother, Barbara Nagle of Attleboro, yesterday said she knew nothing about the suit and that Kingsley hadn’t had any contact with his daughter in three years as far as she knew….

“The latest lawsuit names 19 individuals and companies as defendants, including the St. Louis-based beer giant Anheuser-Busch Inc., whose Budweiser brand accompanied some advertising for the ill-fated show. Anheuser-Busch Inc. yesterday denied any role in promoting or sponsoring the concert in a statement sent to the Herald. ‘The company that distributes Anheuser-Busch Inc. products in Rhode Island is an independent business that has the right to use our beer brand name in its advertising,’ wrote Stephen Lambright, a company lawyer.” (Thomas Caywood, “Second suit filed over fire at Station”, Boston Herald, Mar. 11)(see Mar. 10-11). See also Roger Parloff; “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Ire”, Fortune, Mar. 19; Deroy Murdock, “Lawyers turn tragedy to farce”, Scripps Howard/Naples, Fla. Daily News, Mar. 28. (DURABLE LINK)

April 2-3 – “Mayor: WTC Personal Injury Suits Could Bankrupt NYC”. “New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Monday warned that personal injury lawsuits filed by people who claim their long-term health was damaged by the clean-up of the World Trade Center site could bankrupt the city in the next 20 years.” (Reuters/Yahoo, Mar. 31). See also Paul Howard (Manhattan Institute), “A 9/11 Tort-Fest”, New York Post, Aug. 10, 2002, and New York Law Journal coverage: Mark Hamblett, “9/11 Victims’ Suits Flood Court to Meet One-Year Time Limit”, Sept. 11; Tom Perrotta, “New York City Creates Unit for Suits From Sept. 11″, Sept. 12; Daniel Wise, “Sept. 11 Fund Master Found to Give ‘Fair Compensation’”, Oct. 2). (DURABLE LINK)

April 1 – Maybe crime pays dept.: not an April Fool’s joke. Gerald Skoning’s annual National Law Journal roundup of the year’s weirdest cases in labor and employment law includes the following gem: “Richard N. Shick — while employed as a caseworker in the Illinois Department of Public Aid — robbed a convenience store in Joliet, Ill., armed with a sawed-off shotgun. Afterward, he sued the department, claiming that he was discriminated against because of his disabilities and his sex, the trauma of which caused him to commit the robbery. The jury awarded him $5 million in damages and $166,700 in back pay. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois partially vacated and dismissed the judgment, but awarded $303,830 in front pay, even while he serves a 10-year sentence. Thankfully, the 7th Circuit reversed.” (“Legal Weirdness at Work”, Mar. 26; Gail Diane Cox, “Here’s the tort reform poster boy for 2002″, National Law Journal, Oct. 28). Also on Skoning’s list: voodoo signs ruled not an unfair labor practice; employer dodges harassment charge after conduct is ruled “even-handedly offensive” rather than discriminatory; hemorrhoids not a protected disability under ADA. (DURABLE LINK)