August 2000 archives, part 1


August 10 – Coffee-spill suits meet ADA. In Vallejo, California, a woman is suing McDonald’s, “saying she suffered second-degree burns when a handicapped employee at a drive-thru window dropped a large cup of hot coffee in her lap. …The suit said that the handicapped employee couldn’t grip the cardboard tray and was instead trying to balance it on top of her hands and forearms when she dumped the coffee on Aug. 25, 1999,” scalding Karen Muth, whose lawyer, Dan Ryan, told a local newspaper that she’s entitled to between $400,000 and $500,000. “We recognize that there’s an Americans with Disabilities Act, but that doesn’t give them the right to sacrifice the safety of their customers,” he said. (“Woman sues McDonald’s over spilled coffee”, AP/SFGate, Aug. 7). And British solicitors have organized 26 spill complainants into a group suit against the same chain over the overly piping nature of its beverages: “Hot coffee, hot tea and hot water are at the centre of this case. We are alleging that they are too hot,” said Malcolm Johnson of Steel and Shamash, a London law firm. (“McDonald’s faces British hot drink lawsuit”, Reuters/FindLaw, Aug. 2) (more on hot beverage suits: July 18; “Firing Squad”, Reason, May 1999 (scroll halfway down in piece); and resulting letters exchange, Aug./Sept. 1999 (scroll to last items), April 4).

August 10 – “Imperfect laws add to danger of perfect storms”. “In an ill-advised attempt to prevent overfishing in the [Gulf of Mexico], the government reduced the red snapper season to a very short nine-day opening” — a “snapper derby”. Unfortunately, menacing weather came up during that brief nine-day window, and snappermen were left with a choice of which risk to run, physical or economic. Most went to sea, “and at least two boats encountered life-threatening conditions. One boat was lost in raging seas off Louisiana.” Alaska suffered a series of avoidable accidents and fatalities under a similar “halibut derby” until it switched to a better system: the sort of individual transferable quotas often recommended by economists (Peter Emerson and Felix Cox, Dallas Morning News, July 25).

August 10 – “Justice, not plunder”. We thought we were hard-liners on the topic of excessive lawyers’ fees, but Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson goes us one better by proposing a maximum limit of $1 million or $2 million a year as the most anyone could earn from lawyering in a year. It might sound less outlandish if we went back to the old idea of lawyers as “officers of the court” — i.e., a species of civil servants, even if more fancily dressed. (July 27).

August 10 – Welcome readers (especially Daves). Among the diverse sites we’ve noticed linking to us are: Dave Dufour’s site, from Elkhart, Indiana; gasdetection.com, website of “Interscan Corporation, manufacturer of toxic gas detection systems”, which names us “Mike’s Cool Site of the Week”; Bonehead of the Day Award (citing us for material, not naming us as the awardee!); Miss Liberty Film & TV World, Jon Osborne’s newsletter reporting on film and television events of libertarian interest; Dave’s Corner, published by a different Dave from the one above; Peter Brimelow’s vdare.org, with a line-up of authors critical of immigration and multiculturalism; Big Eye — Alternate News Center, assembling many anti-establishment links; Hittman Chronicle, by yet a third Dave, Dave Hitt, whose July number takes a caustic view of the recent Florida tobacco verdict; Adirondacks2000.com (we’re their current “Featured Internet Site”); and Wrisley.com, “An Electronic Magazine for Thinkers” out of South Carolina.

August 8-9 – Senator Lieberman: a sampler. “Miracles happen,” said the Senator on learning that he was going to be the Democratic pick for VP. (Ron Fournier, “Gore Picks Sen. Lieberman for VP”, Washington Post, Aug. 7). As far as legal reform goes, we’d have to agree — for him to be on the same ticket with Al Gore counts as nothing short of a miracle:

“In vetoing this bipartisan product liability reform, the President went against his own White House Conference on Small Business and members of his own party. … Connecticut Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman said, ‘the President is dead wrong about this bill.’ And no less a journalistic authority than the Washington Post called the President’s decision to veto the bill, ‘a terrible one.’” (Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio) newsletter, May 3, 1996)

“In complaining about trial lawyers’ influence on the liability bill, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told the Wall Street Journal: ‘This is a remarkable story of a small group of people who are deeply invested in the status quo who have worked the system very effectively and have had a disproportionate effect.’” (Dallas Morning News, March 28, 1996, available on Nexis, but not online)

“Mr. President, in my view, you can add the civil justice system to the list of fundamental institutions in our country that are broken and in need of repair. … Ultimately it is the consumers who suffer most from the status quo. …

“I did not always support a national or Federal approach to product liability reform or tort reform generally … What changed my mind was listening to people in Connecticut. …

“I would say that our current medical malpractice system is a stealth contributor to the high cost of health care. … There is a well regarded consulting firm called Lewin-VHI. They have stated that hospital charges for defensive medicine were as high as $25 billion in 1991. That is an enormous figure. Basically what they are saying is that as much as $25 billion of the costs — this is not paid by strangers out there, this is paid by each of us in our health insurance premiums — is the result not of medical necessity but because of defensive practice occasioned by the existing medical malpractice legal system.” (Lieberman floor statement, April 27, 1995, reprinted by Health Care Liability Alliance).

When the Senate (temporarily) voted by a one-vote margin to curb the gargantuan fees obtained by trial lawyers for representing states in the tobacco-Medicaid litigation, a step later blocked by opponents, Lieberman was one of four Democrats to buck the party’s trial lawyer supporters by voting yes (Action on Smoking and Health, June 17, 1998, citing New York Times and C-SPAN).

With Sen. Spence Abraham (R-Mich.), Lieberman introduced the proposed Small Business Liability Reform Act of 1999, which would limit the exposure of small businesses to punitive damages and joint liability for non-economic damages in most cases, limit the application of joint and several liability to small businesses, and make it harder to add wholesalers and retailers to lawsuits against manufacturers. The bill has had trouble attracting support from other Democrats, however (World Floor Covering Association website).

With Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), Lieberman introduced the Auto Choice Reform Act, bitterly opposed by trial lawyers, which would encourage car owners to opt out from the “pain and suffering” lottery in exchange for lower rates. “According to Joseph Lieberman, a co-sponsor, ‘our auto insurance and compensation laws violate the cardinal rule I think those of us in the business legislating have a duty to follow: to draft our laws to encourage people to minimize their disputes, and to encourage those who do have disputes to resolve them as efficiently, as economically, and as quickly as possible.’” — Bionomics Institute, “Driving Them Crazy”, August 15, 1997, citing Congressional Record, April 22, 1997. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) also supports the idea (Dan Miller, “Auto Choice: Relief for Businesses & Consumers”, Joint Economic Committee).

“Jim Kennedy, press aide for Lieberman, indicated that Nader, a lawyer, is watching out for the interests of his profession. ‘What he’s left out is the trial lawyers’ lobby which is bankrolling the opposition. They have the most to lose and they are the ones making money out of the system,’ he said.” (quoted in States News Service, May 3, 1995, after Ralph Nader attacked the Senator for sponsoring liability reform; available on Nexis, but not online).

Addendum: Although a strong supporter of gun control in general, Lieberman joined Republicans and a minority of Democrats on a 1992 procedural vote in support of preventing the District of Columbia from using liability lawsuits as a means toward that end. (S. 3076, vote #152, July 27, 1992) (DURABLE LINK)

August 8-9 – Break in Florida tobacco-Medicaid fee case? Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz says he’s determined to press suit against the Florida lawyers who extracted $3.4 billion in legal fees in the state’s tobacco-Medicaid settlement, saying they promised him 1 percent, or $ 34 million (see July 17). Dershowitz says he’s acting as “a pro bono who intends to give most of the money to charities.” “Where does he get his numbers? They’re preposterous. He has an ego the size of a mountain,” said an attorney for the lawyer-defendants. “Suing me is a serious mistake,” said Pensacola lawyer Robert Kerrigan, of Dershowitz’s action; we’d call that tone intimidating, under the circumstances. “These guys have chutzpah,” Dershowitz said. “I don’t care how rich these guys are or how many judges’ campaigns [Robert] Montgomery contributes to, I’m fighting back.” And: “Now the public can finally see the inside of the cigarette lawyers industry.” We can’t wait, since the record-breaking Florida fee haul has been shrouded in much secrecy up to now (see April 12) (Cindy Krischer Goodman, “Harvard prof suing lawyers over tobacco settlement”, Miami Herald, Aug. 2).

August 4-7 – Republican convention finale. No mention of legal reform in W’s acceptance speech, but the topic did make its way into the earlier remarks from the podium by Jan Bullock, widow of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (gopconvention.com).

August 4-7 – Now that’s bread. A San Francisco jury has awarded $121 million in punitive damages, atop $11 million in compensatory damages, to 21 black workers at an Interstate Bakeries plant (see July 10). Among the charges were hostile work environment, being subjected to racial slurs, and lack of promotions; one worker testified that he hadn’t been allowed to take Martin Luther King Day off although white workers had been allowed time off to watch the San Francisco Giants play. The company is known for making Wonder bread and Hostess snack cakes. (“‘Wonder Bread’ Workers Get $121 Million in Lawsuit “, Reuters/Yahoo, Aug. 3; “Jury Awards Workers in Bread Case”, AP/FindLaw, July 31) Update: judge reduces award by $97 million (see Oct. 10).

August 4-7 – Update: Hirschfeld convicted, sentenced. Eccentric New York City real estate developer, politician and public figure Abe Hirschfeld has been sentenced to one to three years in prison after being convicted on charges of trying to have his business partner killed. Hirschfeld still faces separate retrial on tax fraud charges, following a jury deadlock after which a mistrial was declared; in that case, Hirschfeld created a sensation by handing each juror a check for $2,500, a step apparently not in violation of any court rule at that time (see Sept. 13, Sept. 17, 1999). The judge in the murder-for-hire case, however, explicitly barred Hirschfeld from bestowing any gratuities on jurors after the case’s conclusion. (Samuel Maull, “Real estate mogul gets sentence of 1 to 3 years”, Phila. Inquirer, Aug. 2; same, Phila. Daily News.)

August 4-7 – “Ease up on kids”. Salt Lake Tribune criticizes school safety hysteria and the resort to suspension or expulsion for behavior that once would have merited a trip to the principal’s office. “Utah’s Legislature passed a law this year requiring that secondary education students be expelled for a year if they bring even a fake weapon to school, and it allows no review process through which real threats can be separated from pranks.” (editorial, July 28)

August 4-7 – Losers should pay. Environmental groups’ use of the courts to seek delays in large-scale development projects — which can inflict huge financial losses through the costs of delay even if the challenges eventually fail on the merits — points up the case for loser-pays principles, including bonding where appropriate, as in a recent Northern California case, argues columnist and Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell. “Of all the ways of making decisions, one of the most ridiculous is putting decisions in the hands of third parties who pay no price for being wrong.” (“Costs and Decisions”, TownHall.com, Aug. 2).

August 4-7 – Take that, .hk and .tw. A Chinese law firm, suing on behalf of a dissatisfied consumer, has hauled Japanese-owned cameramaker Canon into court because some of its subsidiaries’ promotional material, including CD packaging and a website, list Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate “countries” in which it does business. Although Taiwanese have lived for more than fifty years under a government different from that of mainland China, Beijing’s official posture is still that the island is part of one China. Canon (Hong Kong) has apologized in newspaper ads, but the Chongqing Hezong Law Firm says its explanation is unconvincing. (“Canon (under) fire: China sues over Web site’s calling Hong Kong, Taiwan countries”, China Online, Aug. 1)

August 3 – Jury orders “Big Chocolate” to pay $135 billion to obese consumers. Lawyers charged Hershey’s with knowingly adding nuts to lure helpless chocoholic buyers. Keep repeating to yourself: it’s just a parody. … it’s just a parody (for now). … it’s just a parody. The Onion, August 2 (via Arts & Letters Daily). Plus: recently launched legal spoof site, ScaldingCoffee.com, profiles not-quite-true courtroom controversies such as the one over “Tapster”, the new system that allows Internet sharing of dance step patterns, much to the economic detriment of Arthur Murray franchisees (July) (latest).

August 3 – Wednesday’s GOP and legal reform. How many distinct references to litigation reform have come up in the Republican convention proceedings? We counted four on Wednesday evening (all favorable): they came in speeches by California small business owner Hector Barreto, dotcom exec Christina Jones, and, of course, vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, who praised Gov. George W. Bush for his success in passing legal reform (“Today the legal system [in Texas] serves all the people, not just the trial lawyers.”) Then there was the comment made by the representative of the state of Washington when its turn came in the roll call: in a pointed reference to the Microsoft case, she said the Evergreen State was in favor of “innovation, not litigation”. If you spotted other references, let us know.

August 3 – CSE event in Philly. Citizens for a Sound Economy, which has been calling attention on the campaign trail to legal-system excesses, will be holding an event in Philadelphia today featuring its giant-fish mascot “Sharkman,” a “Who Wants to be a Trial Lawyer Billionaire” contest and more. The purpose is to honor lawmakers and other officials from Alabama, Illinois, Texas, and Florida who’ve stood up to the litigation lobby in their states. Specifics: Thurs. Aug. 3, 2-5 p.m., Maui Entertainment Complex, Pier 53 N. Delaware Ave., Phila. (CSE website). See you there? Adds the CSE website: “On Sunday, Senator [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] invited Sharkman and CSE staff to attend a reception with all of Senator McCain’s national delegates. Senator McCain grew fond of Sharkman during the primaries, often inviting him on stage in New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

August 3 – And what were the damages? An unemployed 56-year-old Los Angeles machinist named Cornell Zachary says he was the victim of a phone-number mixup in which the British pop group Duran Duran mistakenly posted his phone number on the Internet “as the one to call for T-shirts, souvenirs and tickets.” He then was kept running to the phone day and night by a vast number of wrong-number calls from fans of the group. And what were the damages, you ask — since without damages a lawsuit isn’t much of a lawsuit? Well, Zachary’s lawsuit, filed last week, claims he suffered ‘life-threatening high blood pressure episodes,’ nerve damage, sleep disturbance, and permanent health problems … ‘They had me to the point where my doctor told me I could have a stroke.’” Notwithstanding that dire medical advisory, he didn’t ask the phone company to change his number: “I don’t think that I have to change my number,”‘ he explained. “I didn’t make the mistake. I had had the number already over a year.” His suit also asks punitive and exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees. (Sarah Tippit, “L.A. Man Sues Duran Duran for Posting Number on Web”, Yahoo/Reuters, Aug. 1).

August 2 – Tinkerbell trademark tussle. On Friday in federal court in Scranton, Penn., a company called New Tinkerbell Inc. of New York sued the Walt Disney Company for trademark infringement of the registered trademark “Tinkerbell”, of which it says it and its affiliates are the exclusive lawful owners and licensees. The gossamer-winged character, whose continued existence is made possible only by observers’ willingness to suspend their rational disbelief in her (which already gives her a lot in common with many phenomena of the legal system) dates back to J. M. Barrie’s children’s classic Peter Pan, which has now fallen out of copyright and into the public domain, but the New York company says that it obtained the rights to use her name in commerce in 1952, a year before Disney released its hugely popular movie Peter Pan. There followed a line of “Tinkerbell-emblazoned products for children,” including shampoos, glitter, hair bands, “scrunchies,” umbrellas, sunglasses, pencil kits, and many more; for a while, the complaint alleges, Disney itself bought and resold New Tinkerbell items in its stores, but then decided it wanted to enter the field itself, and has since used on its products such marks as “Tinkerbell, Tinker Bell, Tink, or a proxy for a female fairy.” The suit accuses Disney of unlawful use of “a female fairy character in interstate commerce”. (Roger Parloff, “Fairy Serious Business: Disney Accused of Misappropriating Tinkerbell”, Inside.com, July 31)

August 2 – Judge rebukes EPA enforcement tactics. “In a harsh rebuke to the federal Environmental Protection Agency‘s pursuit of criminal polluters, a judge has ruled the government unnecessarily harassed a Northbridge mill owner and pursued a case against him even though it didn’t have any credible evidence.” Following up on a tip from a former employee of the mill, which makes wire mesh used for lobster traps, a “virtual ‘SWAT team’ consisting of 21 EPA law enforcement officers and agents, many of whom were armed, stormed the [mill] facility to conduct pH samplings. They vigorously interrogated and videotaped employees, causing them great distress,’” wrote federal judge Nathaniel Gorton. Moreover, EPA in obtaining a search warrant apparently concealed evidence from its own testing indicating that the plant’s wastewater emissions may not have breached federal standards. “The case marks the first time in the region that a judge has ruled in favor of an application of the Hyde Amendment, a three-year-old federal law that allows an exonerated defendant to seek legal fees from the government if the criminal prosecution was ‘frivolous, in bad faith or vexatious.’” (David Armstrong, “US judge rules EPA harassed mill owner”, Boston Globe, Aug. 1).

August 2 – Clinton before trial lawyers: a footnote. Press reports had been contradictory about whether or not prospective disbaree Bill Clinton in his Sunday speech became the first sitting president ever to address the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (see July 31, Aug. 1). Molly McDonough of American Lawyer Media appears to clear up the discrepancy: the only other president to visit the organization was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but he spoke to ATLA’s board of directors, which leaves Clinton as the first to appear before the organization’s general membership (“Clinton Addresses Trial Lawyers at Annual Bash”, Aug. 1).

August 2 – “Mugging victim ‘stupid,’ judge says”. A judge in Winnipeg, Canada, has caused an outcry by acquitting an alleged mugger and then lambasting the complainant for openly carrying money in a dangerous neighborhood. “‘What I am satisfied is that we have a very stupid civilian, who admits that he was stupid,’ said [Judge Charles] Rubin, who interrupted the Crown’s closing submission Tuesday to deliver his verdict. ‘If you walk around jingling money in your hand . . . it’s like walking in the wolf enclosure at the city zoo with a pound of ground beef in your hand. And it’s almost the same type of predators you’re going to find out there.’” The judge also advised the complainant to walk in future in the middle of the street for safety, rather than on the sidewalk. (Mike McIntyre, Winnipeg Free Press, July 20).

August 1 – Clinton’s trial-lawyer speech, cont’d. In his partisan-fangs-bared speech Sunday to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the president brought up the topic of vacant seats on the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and accused Republican senators of deliberately not confirming black judicial nominees he’s proposed to that court simply because those nominees are black — which is to say, accused them of engaging in racism. (Neil A. Lewis, “President Criticizes G.O.P. for Delaying Judicial Votes”, New York Times, July 31). As Smarter Times points out (July 31), yesterday’s New York Times reported these rather incendiary charges and yet omitted to include any sort of response to them from Republican senators or anyone else, simply allowing Clinton to make them uncontradicted. For those interested in the issue on other than a demagogic basis, Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online wrote a piece July 17 adducing a sufficiency of non-racist reasons why senators might be leaving the seats vacant (other coverage in USA Today, New York Post).

However, the Times partially redeems itself by some original reporting on the exact nature of the differences between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. It reported that Nader, “who has been closely allied with trial lawyers on the issue of civil litigation rules, said Mr. Gore was allowing the president to take the heat of associating with the lawyers while he was reaping the benefits. ‘He’s just slinking around taking money like crazy from these guys, and at the same time he’s not really standing up for the civil justice system,’” said Ralph, who himself has steered a different course from Gore at least as to the latter course of conduct, since he’s known for his vocal defense of virtually every trial lawyer depredation yet invented.

As AP reports: “Common Cause, a non-partisan group that advocates campaign finance reform, calculates that trial lawyers gave $2.7 million to Democrats in 1999. That is about 1,000 times more than trial lawyers donated to Republicans last year, and twice the amount donated in the same period during the last election cycle.” (Anne Gearan, “GOP keeping minority judges off bench, Clinton says”, AP/Bergen County (N.J.) Record, July 31). However, you would be wrong if you imagine that Common Cause, as “a non-partisan group that advocates campaign finance reform”, might see cause for concern that those donations might not entirely further the public interest. After all, Common Cause recently named as its president Scott Harshbarger, former Democratic attorney general of Massachusetts, who in that office worked closely with trial lawyers and in fact bestowed on them a tobacco representation agreement which brought them an unprecedented fee bonanza. And now Mr. Harshbarger, newly speaking for Common Cause and quoted in the Times piece, ardently defends the particular special interest he has reason to know best, saying massive trial lawyer donations are no more than an appropriate way of leveling the playing field given that those whom the lawyers sue — which includes pretty much every other group in the economy — also donate a lot to politicians. In the new Common Cause universe, it seems, some special-interest influences on politicians are a lot more objectionable than others.

August 1 – “Lawsuits to fit any occasion”. According to the L.A. Times, a 43-year-old local attorney has been involved in 82 lawsuits on his own behalf since 1982. Robe rt W. Hirsh “sued the single mother he hired to stain the woodwork in his Hancock Park Tudor-style home, claiming she left some streaks on the wood. He sued his stockbroker for not getting him into Microsoft stock.” He sued a dissatisfied client to demand his fee, and then, when an arbitration panel instead awarded the client $25,000 against him, sued the lawyers who had represented him in the arbitration. “Hirsh even sued the synagogue where he was married, claiming that the religious elders had botched the catering of his wedding by, among other things, serving his guests cold vegetables and not giving his family all the leftovers. ‘Either he has the worst luck in the world, or he likes to sue,’” said Loyola law prof Laurie Levenson. Many of the suits have succeeded in bringing him settlements, but Hirsh (who also disputes the number of cases in which his critics say he has been involved) now faces a proceeding under California’s rarely used court rules against vexatious litigants, which could curb his activities in future. (“Davan Maharaj, “Lawsuits to Fit Any Occasion”. Los Angeles Times, July 29).

August 1 – Movie caption trial begins. Trial set to begin this week in a closely watched lawsuit in which Portland, Oregon, deaf activists have charged movie theater proprietors with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because they haven’t installed elaborate captioning systems throughout the theaters (Kendra Mayfield, “Films Look to Captioned Audience”, Wired News, July 28). Meanwhile, the recording industry is concerned that a system installed to help the hearing-impaired at live concerts has become a prime vehicle for bootleggers to obtain concert tapes of unusually high quality for pirate sale; the ADA requires arenas to offer the assistive listening devices (Larry McShane, “Bootleggers Use Hear Aid to Record”, Yahoo/AP, July 30). And given the ADA’s many unintended consequences, outrageous results and manifest failures, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman wonders why tenth-anniversary press coverage of the act’s passage took such an overwhelmingly celebratory tone; his column quotes our editor (“The Other Side of the Disabled Rights Law”, July 30).

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