December 20 — New York guardianship scandals. “Cronyism, politics, and nepotism” run rife in New York’s notorious system of court-appointed guardianships, a report released by the state’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, has found after a two-year investigation (see Jan. 12, 2000). “In one case, a lawyer appointed to be a guardian for a woman who could not handle her own affairs billed her estate $850 after he and an assistant took a cake and flowers to her nursing home on her birthday. On another day, the lawyer and an employee took her out for a walk and bought her an ice cream cone. Their bill was $1,275.” And much, much more (Jane Fritsch, “Guardianship Abuses Noted, Including a $1,275 Ice Cream”, New York Times, Dec. 4; Daniel Wise, “Investigation Finds ‘Cronyism’ Abounds in New York Court Appointments”, New York Law Journal, Dec. 5; “Report of the Commission on Fiduciary Appointments”, December; “Fiduciary Appointments in New York“).
December 20 — “Firms Hit Hard as Asbestos Claims Rise”. L.A. Times looks at asbestos litigation and finds abuses and overreaching have gone so far that even some prominent plaintiff’s lawyers agree on the need for action. “An Oakland-based attorney who has represented asbestos victims for 27 years is leading a renegade faction of the plaintiffs’ bar that has joined with many of the corporations they sue in calling for limits on claims from people without serious illnesses. ‘It’s too far gone to do anything else,’ Steve Kazan said. ‘The asbestos companies are really cash cows that we should care for and cultivate so we can milk them for years as we need to. But I have colleagues who’d rather kill them, cut them up and put them on the grill now. We’d all have a great time, but there are people who will be hungry in five years.'” Over 15 years, now-bankrupt boilermaker Babcock & Wilcox “spent $1.6 billion on 317,000 claims that took paralegals five to 10 minutes each to prepare.” (Lisa Girion, “Firms Hit Hard as Asbestos Claims Rise”, L.A. Times, Dec. 17). According to a letter sent by the Manville Trust to federal judge Jack Weinstein on Dec. 2, asbestos claimants with cancer or other grave illness are receiving reduced payments because “disproportionate amount of Trust settlement dollars have gone to the least injured claimants — many with no discernible asbestos-related physical impairment whatsoever.” As usual, a key problem is the submission of questionable x-rays. (Queena Sook Kim, “Asbestos Trust Says Assets Are Reduced As the Medically Unimpaired File Claims”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 14)(online subscribers only).
December 20 — Accused WTC bombing participant won’t get $110K. “In a decision that comments extensively on the war on terrorism, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an award of more than $110,000 in attorney fees to a Palestinian man who successfully avoided deportation after the government accused him of involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center … the court found that the government’s efforts to deport Hany Mahmoud Kiareldeen were ‘substantially justified’ even though it was ultimately unable to prove its case against him to the satisfaction of the trial judge” by clear, convincing and unequivocal evidence. (Shannon P. Duffy, “3rd Circuit Takes Away Attorney Fee Award in ’93 WTC Bombing Case”, The Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 7).
December 19 — Texas jury clears drugmaker in first Rezulin case. Back to the drawing board for plaintiff’s lawyers trying to take down the Warner-Lambert division of Pfizer over side effects from its diabetes drug Rezulin. “‘It was a good drug. It helped a lot of people,’ said one juror, who asked not to be identified. ‘There just wasn’t enough evidence to show the drug was defective.'” Attorney George Fleming had demanded $25 million in damages and “emphasized Warner-Lambert’s interest in profits, flashing excerpts from internal memos before the jury.” Lawyers have many more Rezulin cases in the pipeline, so they’ll be able to try again and again before other juries. (Leigh Hopper, “Firm wins 1st Rezulin suit in court”, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 17). UpdateJan. 9-10, 2002: second trial goes against drugmaker with $43 million actual damages.
December 19 — “$3 million awarded in harassment”. “A federal jury Wednesday awarded a woman patrol officer for the Cook County Forest Preserve District $3 million in damages — $1 million more than her lawyer sought from the district–for years of sexual harassment and retaliation on the job … One member of the five-woman, three-man jury said he didn’t find the harassment egregious but felt a need to send the Forest Preserve District a message for its inaction regarding Spina’s complaints. ‘The county didn’t respond,’ juror Christopher Calgaro, an insurance claims supervisor from Homewood, said after the verdict. ‘They need to change, I mean catch up to the times.'” (Matt O’Connor and Robert Becker, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 13).
December 19 — Sued if you do dept.: language in the workplace. “Any worker offended by the words of a single employee can sue his employer for damages. Accordingly, many employers have adopted ‘English-only’ rules for their employees, in order to better supervise employee comments. Yet the EEOC also insists that employers can be sued by any employee who takes offense to an ‘English-only’ policy.” (Jim Boulet Jr., , “Catch-22 on Language”, National Review Online, Nov. 14) (see Nov. 17, 1999).
December 18 — False trail of missing lynx. “Federal and state wildlife biologists planted false evidence of a rare cat species in two national forests, officials told The Washington Times. Had the deception not been discovered, the government likely would have banned many forms of recreation and use of natural resources in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state.” After a Forest Service employee blew the whistle on colleagues, officials discovered that seven government employees, five from federal agencies and two from Washington state, “planted three separate samples of Canadian lynx hair on rubbing posts used to identify existence of the creatures in the two national forests.” The employees were given no serious discipline, merely counseling and being taken off the lynx survey project, and federal officials would not even release their names, “citing privacy concerns.” (Audrey Hudson, “Rare lynx hairs found in forests exposed as hoax”, Washington Times, Dec. 17; InstaPundit, Dec. 17).
December 18 — For client-chasers, daytime TV gets results. “Princeton, N.J. lawyer John Sakson … spends up to $80,000 a month soliciting potential plaintiffs. Some of his advertising is aimed at slip-and-fall and medical-malpractice victims. But these days he’s also trawling for much bigger fish — plaintiffs for deep-pocket attacks on big corporations, especially pharmaceutical companies. … the nation’s largest legal- advertising agency … says one-third of its $20 million in legal billings comes from pharmaceutical litigation ads, compared with maybe 1% a decade ago.” Poor, unemployed and disabled people disproportionately watch daytime TV: “Real-life judge shows like Judge Mills Lane and Judge Judy are jackpots.” (Michael Freedman, “New Techniques in Ambulance Chasing”, Forbes, Nov. 11).
December 18 — Compulsory chapel for Minn. lawyers. “Since 1996, the Minnesota Supreme Court has required attorneys to participate in its version of diversity training — called ‘elimination of bias’ education — as a condition of holding a license to practice law.” The point is less to regulate attorneys’ conduct than to instill in them opinions that the authorities consider correct about complex political and moral questions, and many of the resulting seminars have had a tendentious, preachy anti- white- male tone. (Katherine Kersten, “Court-ordered ‘elimination of bias’ seminars threaten freedom of thought”, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Dec. 12). See update Nov. 21, 2003 (lawyer challenges requirement).
December 17 — “Suing the City for Sept. 11? Oh, Why Not?”. Giuliani or Bloomberg, New York City’s tort crisis just keeps getting worse: “Settlements cost the city $459 million that year [fiscal 2000], the latest for which statistics are available. … You might expect the litigation to slow down as a hurt and financially damaged city looks to rebuild and weather a recession. You would be wrong. … Interviews with lawyers for the city and prospective plaintiffs indicate that the attack will generate substantially more than 1,000 notices of claim.” (Joyce Purnick, New York Times, Dec. 13).
December 17 — Slouching toward Marin? Every conservative commentator in the country, it seems, has by now told us where to pin the blame for Tali-boy John Walker’s descent into Islamic extremism: it’s all because of his permissive, religiously liberal suburban upbringing. Steve Chapman offers a corrective to all the Culture War axe-grinding (“Is John Walker a failure of liberalism?”, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16).
December 17 — Daynard watch. It sure did take a long time, but the British Medical Journal has finally admitted to its readers that tobacco-baiting Northeastern University law prof Richard Daynard failed to disclose competing interests in litigation to BMJ readers as per the journal’s policy (see our earlier reports). The correction states that Daynard “has been involved as counsel in suing tobacco companies and has received grants for research into the use of litigation to control tobacco use”. Because this formulation is so terse and artfully worded, however, readers in the United Kingdom (where lawyers are generally not allowed to claim percentage stakes in litigation) may not realize that the competing interest Daynard concealed consisted not in routine hourly fees but a contingency stake that, per his claims, may top $100 million (“Correction: Tobacco litigation worldwide”, Oct. 6). Connecticut activist Martha Perske deserves the credit for getting the BMJ to semi-‘fess up. Meanwhile, Daynard’s division- of- the- spoils suit against former anti-tobacco colleagues Ron Motley and Richard Scruggs “is providing an inside look at the way lawyers finagled fees in the tobacco litigation — and the lengths they’ll go to protect their hoard.” (Elizabeth Preis, “A Piece of the Action”, The American Lawyer, Sept. 7).
December 15-16 — Criminal defense attorneys, doing what they do best. “While it may seem like the ultimate smoking gun, defense lawyers said there would be ways to try to undercut the videotape of Osama bin Laden if he were to go on trial for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. … ‘I would argue as a defense lawyer that the tape is puffery, celebration and bragging,’ said Robert E. Precht, director of public interest law at the University of Michigan Law School who was a defense lawyer in the trial of the World Trade Center bombers in 1994′ … several defense lawyers suggested that a creative defense team might claim that the damning translation from Arabic was misleading or that the tape was doctored. ‘The reality is you can make a tampering argument with any tape,’ Barry I. Slotnick, a New York defense lawyer, said.” And: “with tapes that are transcribed from a different language, there are interpreters you can find who can come up with a different transcript,” offered New York’s Benjamin Brafman. Then there’d be attacks on the tape’s admissibility, since “it was not clear how the government obtained it”, which might in turn force the CIA to reveal sensitive information — great tactical leverage. (William Glaberson, “Defense Lawyers See Ways to Attack Tape, if Not Win”, New York Times, Dec. 15). On the role of the O.J. Simpson case in convincing much of the American public that our court system cannot be trusted to deliver even rough justice in a high-profile criminal trial, see, among many others, Glenn Reynolds, InstaPundit.com, Dec. 13.
December 15-16 — Updates. Further developments in cases that were bound to develop further:
* The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled that obesity in itself is not a disability and that airlines are not therefore obliged by law to offer extra seats to severely overweight passengers, although it suggested they consider doing so voluntarily (see June 7, Dec. 20, 2000)(“Canadian tribunal rules obesity is not a disability”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 13).
* In New South Wales, Australia, an appeals court has ordered a new trial after finding that an award of almost $3 million (Aust.) was “excessively high” in the case of a man who sued over having been subjected to strapping as punishment twice at a Catholic school seventeen years ago (see Feb. 20). (Ellen Connolly, “Compensation takes a caning as $3m payment revoked”, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 1).
* Sitting en banc, the Ninth Circuit has held that grabbing the interest on clients’ trust accounts at law firms to finance poverty law does not entail any “taking” for which the clients need be compensated; the 7-4 decision comes over a dissent by Judge Alex Kozinski, whose earlier opinion for a three-judge panel (see Jan. 31) the court reversed. The Ninth now officially disagrees with the Fifth Circuit (so what else is new?) on this issue, and the circuit split may attract the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court did not resolve the question of whether such programs violate the First Amendment. (Jason Hoppin, “IOLTA: 9th Circuit Says IOLTA Programs OK”, The Recorder, Nov. 15) (opinion in PDF format courtesy FindLaw).
* “Five shopkeepers prosecuted for weighing food in British Imperial measurements instead of the metric system demanded by European law appealed to London’s High Court Tuesday to quash their convictions.” After greengrocer Steven Thoburn of Sunderland, the original “metric martyr”, was brought up on charges for weighing bananas in pounds (see Jan. 22, April 11), authorities collared four more shopkeepers who were using the forbidden measures to weigh such items as mackerel and pumpkins. Some 200 protesters demonstrated outside the court in support of the merchants. (“Shopkeepers Battle for Right to Use British Weight” , Reuters/Yahoo, Nov. 23). Update Feb. 20, 2002: they lose High Court appeal.
December 13-14 — “Father seeks $1.5 million after son misses varsity spot”. By reader acclaim: “The father of a high school sophomore seeks $1.5 million in damages and the dismissal of the school’s basketball coach after his son did not make the varsity. Lynn Rubin sued the New Haven Unified School District on Nov. 27 because his son, Jawaan Rubin, was told to return to the junior varsity after being asked to try out for varsity.” The youngster attends James Logan High School in Union City, Calif. (AP/SFGate.com, Dec. 11; Contra Costa Times, Dec. 12).
December 13-14 — SCTLA’s homegrown Chomsky. We’re familiar with the tendency of politically active injury lawyers to espouse opinions farther to the left than those of the communities they live in. Still, we’re a bit amazed at a commentary that appeared last month on CommonDreams.org, a left-leaning website that has vehemently opposed U.S. military action before and after September 11. The commentary, in headlong Noam Chomsky/Robert Fisk rant mode, claims that “the United States is making war on children” in its efforts against the Taliban and al Qaeda, declares that the American military is delivering a “message of greed and violence” to Afghanis, and even puts scare quotes around the word “evil-doers” in referring to those responsible for Sept. 11. The screed’s author? Columbia, S.C. plaintiff’s lawyer Tom Turnipseed, a well-known figure in his state’s Democratic politics (most recently as its 1998 attorney general candidate; he’s now mulling a run for U.S. Senate) who’s often described as a leader of the state party’s progressive wing. Can this sort of thing really play with the voting public and in the jury box in a conservative, pro-military state like S.C.?
The “message of greed” that Turnipseed claims the U.S. is conveying to Afghanis, incidentally, consists of our offer of $25 million for the apprehension of Osama bin Laden. Presumably this is quite different from the message conveyed by Turnipseed’s own web site, which assures prospective clients that he has resolved numerous cases for sums in excess of $1 million. (“Broadcasting and Bombing”, CommonDreams.org, Nov. 22; Turnipseed’s law firm website and “mission“; via Matt Welch). (DURABLE LINK)
December 13-14 — Competitor can file RICO suit over hiring of illegal aliens. A really odd one from the Second Circuit: the court says a commercial cleaning service in Hartford has standing to sue a competitor for racketeering under federal law over the second firm’s alleged hiring of undocumented workers. If the decision stands, expect all sorts of new business-on-business litigation, underscoring the need to roll back RICO’s many overexpansive provisions, or repeal the law entirely. (Elizabeth Amon, “New RICO Target: Hiring Illegal Aliens”, National Law Journal, Nov. 27). Update: see Point Of Law, Jul. 12, 2004.
December 13-14 — Segway, the super-wheelchair and the FDA. The much-publicized new mobility device, known variously as “It”, “Ginger” and the “Segway”, originated as a spinoff of a quest for a truly powerful and versatile wheelchair that would allow disabled users to climb and descend stairs and curbs, traverse rough terrain and surmount other kinds of barriers. The IBot wheelchair project is still considered extremely promising, but progress on it has been less rapid than hoped: genuine safety concerns are part of the problem, but they’re magnified by various legal worries including the arduous process of getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new “medical device”. Meanwhile some disabled persons, frustrated at seeing years of their lives slip by without the yearned-for mobility advance, are now considering hacking the “Segway” to meet their needs. (Michelle Delio, “What About Kamen’s Other Machine?”, Wired News, Dec. 7).
As for the Segway itself: “No matter how inherently safe Segways may be, someone, somewhere is going to kill himself on one. ‘It’s inevitable,’ says Gary Bridge, Segway’s marketing chief. ‘I dread that day.’ Never mind that people die every day on bicycles, in crosswalks, on skateboards, in cars. The Segway is the newest new thing, and nothing does more to set hearts afire on the contingency-fee bar. ‘There are some very deep pockets around this thing,’ remarks Andy Grove. ‘I fear this could be a litigation lightning rod.'” (John Heilemann, “Reinventing the wheel”, Time, Dec. 2 (see p. 4)). Update: see Aug. 1, 2002.
December 13-14 — Menace of office-park geese. We knew they were sinister: an Illinois panel has approved a $17,000 settlement for Aramark Corp. deliveryman Nolan Lett, who was attacked by Canada geese on his employer’s property in suburban Oak Brook, and filed a workers’ comp claim “under the theory that Aramark had a duty to warn employees of the dangers of the geese because the building was in an area that attracted them.” Lett broke his wrist trying to fend off the pesky creatures. (“Workers’ compensation: Victim of wild goose attack settles for $17,000”, National Law Journal, Oct. 22). (DURABLE LINK)
December 12 — By reader acclaim: “Teen hit by train while asleep on tracks sues railroad”. Cameron Clapp of Grover Beach, Calif. has sued the Union Pacific railroad and its conductor and engineer, saying that they should have sounded the train’s horn or bell as well as engaged the emergency brake when they saw him asleep on the tracks. Clapp’s blood alcohol level after the accident was measured at .229, nearly three times the permissible level for operating a motor vehicle. “According to Grover Beach police, the engineer and conductor did not sound the horn because they were focused on activating the train’s emergency brakes.” Notwithstanding his client’s having been passed out at the time, Clapp’s attorney, Jim Murphy, claims that ‘These horns are enormously powerful and can literally* wake the dead.'” (Leila Knox, San Luis Obispo Tribune, Dec. 8) (*usage note)
December 12 — A bargain at $700/hour. New York law firms Weil, Gotshal and Manges and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz “have each asked for a $1 million bonus, on top of their regular rates and costs, as an ‘enhancement'” for advising United Companies Financial Corp. of Baton Rouge, La. and its creditors during its bankruptcy. Under bankruptcy law, judges must approve the payment of fees in such cases. “Ultimately, any such fees come out of the estate of the debtor, leaving less money to go around. … Weil, Gotshal’s [attorney Harvey] Miller says that while shareholders were wiped out, his firm, which represented the debtor, still deserves a bonus for ‘creating value.’ Weil is seeking $7.3 million in fees in the case. But he says that hourly rates do not always do justice to a lawyer’s contributions. He considers his $700 hourly rate, which he increased from $675 over the summer, ‘a bargain.'”
“In another case, a small firm, Dann Pecar Newman & Kleiman of Indianapolis, has requested $5 million in fees for representing consumers in a two-year-old Chapter 11 proceeding against a defunct satellite-dish financing unit of Houston-based American General Corp. The fee request includes a $3 million bonus, which would put the 22-lawyer firm’s effective rate in the case at roughly $650 an hour — on a par with top New York firms. The consumers ultimately collected about $28 million from the company. David Kleiman, a partner, says he considers the case more akin to a far-flung class-action suit, where courts have long rewarded lawyers a multiple of their hourly rates. The fees were ‘remarkably low,’ he says.” (Richard B. Schmitt, “Bankruptcy Lawyers Seek Big ‘Enhancement’ Bonuses”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1 (online subscribers only)).
December 12 — Ready, aim … consult counsel. It seems that situation described by Seymour Hersh in his New Yorker story a few weeks back (see Oct. 19) — of U.S. forces hesitating to destroy a hostile target until they could consult a Pentagon lawyer — is not as unusual as might be assumed. “To many outside of military life, the idea of a judge advocate whispering in the ear of a four-star general [during mission planning and in battlefield decisionmaking] is startling. But nowadays it is standard procedure,” writes Vanessa Blum in Legal Times. “Modern judge advocates literally sit at the side of commanders, drafting rules of engagement, weighing in on targeting decisions, and even helping to prepare special operations forces for risky missions.” (“JAG Goes to War”, Nov. 15).
December 11 — “Lawyers on trial”. In what was originally planned as a cover story, U.S. News in this week’s issue asks: “Are lawyers out of control? Or, more important: Has litigation become more of a burden to society than a safeguard?”. Our editor, who provided considerable assistance (readers of this site will recognize many stories), is quoted. (Pamela Sherrid, U.S. News, Dec. 17) (links to sidebars on class action recruitment, asbestos, forum-shopping, shareholder suits). Also, an account of a recusal controversy in a New York securities-law case quotes our editor to the effect that lawyers are taking a risk when they demand that judges recuse themselves, since such demands tend to annoy not only the target judge but also his colleagues on the bench. (Heidi Moore, “IPO Recusal Motion Backfires”, The Deal, Dec. 7).
December 11 — “Wrongful life” comes to France. A court in Paris has ruled that some disabled children can sue doctors for not having aborted them, a development that OpinionJournal.com‘s “Best of the Web” takes as evidence of specifically French barbarity, apparently unaware that American lawyers have been advancing such theories for years in our courts with some success (see Aug. 22). (Nanette van der Laan, “France debates right not to be born”, Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 7; James Taranto, “Best of the Web”, Dec. 10 (last item)). Update Jan. 9-10, 2002: French doctors stage job action in protest.
December 11 —KPMG. This international services firm (no longer affiliated with the consulting firm of the same name) seems to think it has a legal right to prevent people from linking to its website without its permission, so of course any number of websites are doing just that. Like this: KPMG. Actually, our advice is to skip the company’s tedious site and just check out the Wired News account of the controversy: Farhad Manjoo, “Big Stink Over a Simple Link”, Dec. 6. (& see Blogdex)