July 19-20 — “Coke Plaintiff Eavesdrops on Lawyers; Case Unravels”. After lawyers suing Coca-Cola on discrimination charges hold a conference call with their clients and with Jesse Jackson, one of the clients, a Coke security guard named Gregory Clark, quietly decides to stay on the line, rather than hang up as the others and Jackson do, and listen to what the lawyers say among themselves. The sensational results are aired in this remarkable article in the Atlanta legal paper, which just might blow the tightly screwed cap off the whole issue of lawyers’ management of litigation in their own interest — don’t even think of missing it (R. Robin McDonald, Fulton County Daily Report (Atlanta), July 18) (Atlanta Journal-Constitution special page on Coke discrimination litigation).
July 19-20 — Editorial roundup: “The wrong verdict on tobacco”. By a wide margin, the American people believe that though cigarettes are harmful, it should be lawful to sell them. “Last week’s verdict by a Florida jury, however, suggests that what the American people want is no longer terribly important when it comes to tobacco.” (Chicago Tribune, editorial, July 18). “[T]he judge prohibited any testimony relating to choice and personal responsibility,” contends the New York Post. In plain English, the fix was in.” (“Milking the Tobacco Cow”, July 18). Jury foreman Leighton Finegan said he was “insulted” when tobacco company lawyers raised the possibility that the throat cancer of one of the plaintiffs might have been caused by occupational dust exposure, but it’s perfectly legitimate for defendants to point out that health problems arise from multiple origins, which sheds light on the unmanageable nature of the supposed “class” (Hickory (N.C.) Record, “$145,000,000,000!”, July 17). “It says something about the class-action lawsuit Florida smokers filed against the industry that two of the lead plaintiffs in the case were medical officials who bragged of their own ignorance,” comments the Washington Times. “Said one, a 44-year-old nurse, ‘I had no idea there was anything wrong with cigarettes at all.” (“That will be $145 billion, please”, July 17). And Smarter Times, the new online venture edited by Ira Stoll that keeps a watchful journalistic eye on the New York Times, notes that the newspaper’s July 15 editorial “basically comes out in favor of using class action lawsuits to put companies out of business, even when the Congress or state legislatures are unwilling to declare the products illegal.” (Issue #28).
July 19-20 — Disabled accessibility for campaign websites: the gotcha game. The Washington Post‘s online edition plays gotcha with political campaign websites, most of which fail to heed disabled-accessibility guidelines of the sort that may already be legally binding on a wide range of private sites. The Al Gore (D) and Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) websites are among the minority that comply with “Bobby“, the most widely used program for evaluating a site’s disabled accessibility. Sites that fall short on “Bobby” include those of George W. Bush (R), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Ralph Nader (Green) and Patrick Buchanan (Reform). (Ryan Thornburg, Mark Stencel and Ben White, “Political Graffiti Goes Online” (third item), WashingtonPost.com, July 17).
However, running the Thornburg-Stencel-White article itself through a “Bobby” check discloses that as of Tuesday evening it itself suffered from at least fifteen violations of disabled accessibility rules: lack of alternative text for images (12 instances), lack of redundant text links for server-side image map hot-spots (2 instances), and lack of alt text for image-type buttons in forms (1 instance) (full “Bobby” evaluation of Post article). The article is also reprinted on Slate, where as of Tuesday evening it suffered from at least 19 Bobby infractions, including lack of alt text (18 instances) and lack of button text (once) (evaluation). Numbers are subject to change if and as the pages change, of course.
July 19-20 — Target Detroit. “Those in Michigan cheering state assaults on the tobacco industry and gun manufacturers may want to hold their applause,” writes the Detroit News‘ Jon Pepper, since the state’s leading industry, automaking, could face assault from some of the same litigation forces. (“Auto industry could follow guns, tobacco into courtroom”, June 4). Many lawyers are eager to pin liability on the design of sport utility vehicles because of their tendency to inflict higher than usual damage on other motorists and pedestrians, but they’ve had trouble so far finding a theory that will stick (Keith Bradsher, “S.U.V. Suits Still Face Long Odds”, New York Times, May 30). And a federal judge has refused to dismiss a defamation countersuit by Philadelphia class action firm Greitzer & Locks against DaimlerChrysler and its associate general counsel, Lew Goldfarb, arising from charges DaimlerChrysler filed last fall (see Nov. 12) charging the Greitzer firm and another attorney with the filing of abusive class action litigation. The Greitzer firm is now suing Mr. Goldfarb personally for defamation and interference with contractual advantage and cites, as evidence of malice, his description of the cases filed by Greitzer & Locks as “a form of legalized blackmail” and of one such suit as one that “belongs in the class action hall of shame.” How many times do we have to warn you to watch very carefully what you say when you criticize lawyers? (Shannon P. Duffy, “DaimlerChrysler GC Can Be Sued in Pennsylvania”, The Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), June 30; “Greitzer & Locks Takes a Swing Of Its Own at DaimlerChrysler”, Jan. 14).
July 18 — Florida tobacco verdict. Our editor has an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal discussing last week’s punitive award in the Florida tobacco class action: Walter Olson, “‘The Runaway Jury’ is No Myth”, Jul. 18. For more on the Engle case, see July 10; our editor’s Wall Street Journal op-ed from Jul. 12, 1999; the related commentaries on our tobacco-litigation page; and the press clips at Yahoo Full Coverage. Also check our numerous commentaries, from yesterday and earlier, on the multistate tobacco settlement, which counts as trial lawyers’ bird-in-the-hand compared with Engle‘s bird-in-the-bush. Later developments in case: see May 15, 2004 and links from there.
July 18 — “Court says warning about hot coffee unnecessary”. It makes a contrast to the famed McDonald’s case: the Nevada Supreme Court, upholding a lower court’s decision, has dismissed a lawsuit against a restaurant and its suppliers alleging negligent failure to warn about the dangers of hot coffee. Lane Burns had sued the Turtle Stop restaurant after spilling coffee on his leg and suffering burns, but District Judge Gene Porter ruled that the “danger is open and obvious.” That differs from the sentiments of the judge and jury in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where octogenarian Stella Liebeck won a $2.9 million judgment against the fast-food chain, which was later reduced to $480,000 and settled for an undisclosed sum. (Cy Ryan, “Court says warning about hot coffee unnecessary”, Las Vegas Sun, July 11).
July 18 — “Chutzpah is. . .” Eugene Volokh of UCLA law school writes as follows: “Chutzpah is . . . when you get a job working for your wife’s parents because you are their son-in-law, and then when you and she get divorced and her parents fire you, you sue them for marital status discrimination.
“This is exactly what happened in Matteson v. Prince, Inc., Montana Dep’t of Lab. & Indus. No. 9901008658 (1999) (pdf document). Amazingly, the agency held that the employer’s behavior was illegal discrimination, but Matteson wasn’t entitled to any damages because in this particular case the ex-son-in-law would have been fired in any event because he had gotten into a shouting match with his employers at work.”
July 18 — Breakthrough for plaintiffs on latex gloves? Last Thursday an Alameda County, Calif. jury returned an $800,000 award to a health care worker against Baxter Health Care, which formerly made latex gloves for hospital use. Naturally occurring substances in the gloves sometimes trigger virulent allergies in health care workers which prevent them from continuing in medical work, and lawyers have argued that had Baxter instituted a practice of washing the gloves before sale to remove surface proteins, it would have reduced their allergy-stimulating potential. Hundreds more latex allergy lawsuits are pending, and lawyers are hoping the new case, McGinnis v. Baxter Health Care, will serve as a model for others. (Sonia Giordani, “California Latex Glove Verdict Sets Tone”, The Recorder (San Francisco), July 17) (more about latex allergies) (see also Oct. 26).
July 17 — Dershowitz’s Florida frolic? Alan Dershowitz is demanding $34 million for putting in 118 hours of work on the state of Florida’s Medicaid-reimbursement tobacco suit, according to two of the lawyers who helped mastermind that suit, Robert Montgomery and Sheldon Schlesinger. The two filed suit against the famed Harvard law prof last week, asking a judge to determine whether he’s entitled to a bonus they say they never promised him. Through their attorney they allege that Dershowitz is asserting an entitlement to 1 percent of the gargantuan $3.4 billion fee award made to the attorneys who represented the state, which would amount to $34 million, but they say he hasn’t submitted any hourly time sheets to back up that claim. “He wants a lot of money, and he’s not entitled to it,” said J. Michael Burman, attorney for Montgomery and Schlesinger. If the lawyers’ figures are accurate, $34 million divided by 118 hours would work out to $288,000 an hour. (Jon Burstein, “Lawyer wants $34 million for working 118 hours on Florida’s case against tobacco companies”, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, July 14; more on Florida tobacco fees: April 12, December 27-28).
July 17 — Ness Motley’s aide-Grégoire. In a single day, December 8, 1999, Christine Gregoire, the attorney general from the state of Washington who’s been mentioned as a possible AG in a Gore administration, saw her re-election campaign kitty more than double. The benefactors, who sent nearly $23,000, weren’t Washington residents at all, but rather two dozen lawyers and their relatives associated with the Charleston, S.C. law firm of Ness, Motley, which is expected to pocket a billion dollars or more in fees from the multistate tobacco settlement that Gregoire was instrumental in brokering. An aide to Gregoire, who engaged Ness Motley to represent Washington along with the many other states it represented, dismisses talk of payoffs and calls the contributions “a reflection that someone has a high regard for an elected official.” “I only wish we had given her more,” says Ness superlawyer Joe Rice, quoted in this article in Mother Jones spotlighting the sluicing of tobacco-fee money to friendly Democratic pols. (Rick Anderson, “Tobacco money flows both ways”, Mother Jones, July 6).
July 17 — Challenging the multistate settlement. In a Cato Institute paper, Thomas C. O’Brien argues that the anticompetitive provisions of the multistate tobacco settlement, such as those curbing entry by newly formed cigarette companies, should rightly be seen as themselves an antitrust violation and as going beyond the duly constituted power of the fifty states, which would open up the possibility of injunctive relief and treble damage remedies “available in private lawsuits brought directly by injured parties, including smokers and nonparticipating tobacco companies.” (Thomas C. O’Brien, “Constitutional and Antitrust Violations of the Multistate Tobacco Settlement”, Cato Policy Analysis No. 371, May 18 (summary links to PDF document)). Also from Cato, Richard E. Wagner of George Mason University offers another critique of the multistate settlement (“Understanding the Tobacco Settlement: The State as Partisan Plaintiff”, Regulation, vol. 22, no. 4 (table of contents; follow links to PDF document). Cato, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Smokers Alliance filed an amicus brief last week urging the Third Circuit to invalidate the nationwide tobacco settlement agreement on constitutional grounds. (“Public Interest Groups Urge Court to Invalidate Tobacco Agreement ” CEI press release, July 13). On collusive aspects of the multistate settlement, see our commentary for July 29 of last year; Rinat Fried, “Distributors Challenging Tobacco Deal”, The Recorder/CalLaw, June 30, 1999; and “Puff, the Magic Settlement” (Reason, January).
July 14-16 — “Are lawyers running America?”. Time‘s feature story this week on the Fourth Branch leads with the tale of tobacco/HMO nemesis Dickie Scruggs’ recent appearance before the Connecticut State Medical Society (see Feb. 22, “P.S.”), where he “was introduced so gushingly that even he was embarrassed. ‘You forgot to mention,’ he chided the society’s head, ‘that I rested on the seventh day.'” Among bits of new-to-us info about the great legal magnates, we learned that “Wayne Reaud (pronounced Ree-oh) has used his hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from asbestos and other ‘toxic tort’ litigation to buy the local newspaper and a chunk of downtown real estate in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas,” while Florida’s Frederic Levin “concedes his firm’s $300 million take [from tobacco] was ‘totally obscene’ and says he’s giving much of it to charity,” having already had the University of Florida Law School named after him following a big gift. Who’s to be sued next? All sorts of targets, but the magazine reports that some lawyers “are considering suits against the alcoholic-beverage industry, which they would hold responsible for drunk-driving deaths and other alcohol-related losses, using the same ‘negligent marketing’ allegations that have been lodged against gunmakers.” Quotes our editor twice, too. Most memorable line: “Ask Scruggs if trial lawyers are trying to run America, and he doesn’t bother to deny it. ‘Somebody’s got to do it,’ he says, laughing.” (Adam Cohen, “Are lawyers running America?”, Time, July 17)
July 14-16 — “‘Whiplash!’ America’s most frivolous lawsuits”. Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch is promoting this new book by comedy writer James Percelay and Jeremy Deutchman (Andrews & McMeel). Five of the cases from the book are retold at the M-LAW site, including ones involving a woman who sued a guide-dog service because the dog it provided did not keep its blind human master from stepping on her foot and breaking her toe; a man who cut off his hand, believing it Satanically possessed, refused a doctor’s pleas to let him reattach it, and then sued the doctor later for complying with his instructions; a college student who tried to “moon” friends from a third-floor window, fell out and sued for his injuries; a criminal who filed an excessive-force suit against police after being apprehended for a particularly brutal crime, and won a $184,000 jury verdict, later thrown out; and a man who spilled a cold chocolate milkshake on himself, was so startled that he crashed his car, and sued McDonald’s. (All five cases were sooner or later unsuccessful in the courts.) We haven’t seen the actual book yet (or fact-checked the five cases, although we remember most of them from when they originally happened) but it seems to be selling pretty well on Amazon. Also check out M-LAW’s “obligatory disclaimer“.
July 14-16 — Never too stale a claim. Asbestos, lead paint, small-plane and machine-tool liability cases have all demonstrated that American lawyers are willing to trace responsibility back at least as far as the first decades of the twentieth century if that’s what it takes to find a deep pocket chargeable with injury. So it shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise when a Texas court entered a $234 million default judgment against the government of Russia on behalf of a man whose grandfather’s property was confiscated during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Dan Nelson, attorney for claimant Lee Magness, “says he will start trying to collect by seizing any Russian art exhibits on tour in this country”, and preliminary maneuvers to that effect led to a temporary delay in two art tours. The Russian government has filed a protest with our State Department (for more on the foreign-policy repercussions of the American way of suing, see July 6). The extreme willingness of our current legal system to revisit very old transactions in search of grist for litigation — much in contrast with an earlier law’s concern for repose and finality — probably made it inevitable that we’d see the current boomlet of discussion regarding reparations claims over slavery: if we’re already willing to go back 83 years to 1917, why not a further 52 years to 1865? Besides, some of us have our eye on the British, who’ve enjoyed virtual impunity for much too long over their burning of American homes during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. (Susan Borreson, “Texans’ Default Judgment Against Russians Stands”, Texas Lawyer, Feb. 1).
July 13 — Class-action assault on eBay. It’s doubtful whether eBay, the massively popular electronic flea market, would ever have gotten off the ground had its proprietors been required to warrant the goods being sold. In April, however, attorney James Krause of the San Diego-based class-action firm of Krause & Kalfayan filed a lawsuit on behalf of six California residents who had bought sports memorabilia, the subject of widely reported fakery, over the online marketplace. An eight-year-old provision of California law stipulates that dealers in autographed sports memorabilia must provide a certificate of authenticity. Krause is seeking class-action status on behalf of all California buyers, and is asking for the penalties laid out in the statute, which according to AuctionWatch “entitles the buyer to ten times the purchase amount and other damages should an autograph prove to be forged or come without this certificate”. EBay contends that it is not a dealer or auctioneer but simply provides the modern equivalent of newspaper classified ads, so that only the individual sellers could properly be held liable. “If successful, the suit could undermine eBay’s business model,” reports the Industry Standard. “Legal experts say that if the company can be held liable for the actions of its users, it is likely to face a flurry of suits that would severely handicap its business.” Krause & Kalfayan has also filed suits on unrelated theories against such firms as Microsoft (see Dec. 23), Federal Express, Atlantic Richfield, Nine West and Charles Schwab (complaint and related news story at Krause & Kalfayan site; Victoria Slind-Flor, “EBay Denies Auctioneer Status”, National Law Journal, July 10; Miguel Helft, “EBay: We’re Not Auctioneers”, Industry Standard, May 1; “The Class Action Suit”, AuctionWatch, undated). Bonus:Weird eBay Auctions (WhatTheHeck.com) (& update Nov. 22-23: judge certifies class action)
July 13 — Nader on the Corvair. The litigation advocate’s presidential candidacy makes a good occasion to revisit his original claim to fame, the Corvair episode. The car’s safety record turned out in hindsight far better than you’d have guessed reading Unsafe at Any Speed, but “being wrong on the Corvair hasn’t hurt Nader’s career one bit,” writes Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason. (“‘Saint Ralph’s’ Original Sin”, National Review Online, June 28).
MORE LINKS: Bill Vance, CanadianDriver.com (“The Corvair’s handling would later be exonerated, but the damage had been done”); Corvair Society of America (CORSA); Brock Yates, Car & Driver, reprinted in CORSA’sThe Windmill, Nov./Dec. 1971, and Charles B. Camp, “Popularity of Nader Declines to Its Nadir Among Corvair Owners”, Wall Street Journal, July 23, 1971, reprinted at Rick’s Corvair Scrapbook; Thomas Sowell, “Lawsuits and Legal Visions”, 1987 speech at Shavano Institute Seminar, reprinted at tsowell.com; Andrew Gurudata, “Great Car At Any Speed“, Corvair Webring; Corvair Project.
July 13 — Access to something. Federal prosecutors are investigating claims that attorney Denice Patrick of Lynnwood, Washington, outside of Seattle, violated ethics and conflict-of-interest rules. Specifically, they’re looking into allegations that while employed to write legal decisions for the federal Social Security Administration, she also “moonlighted for more than a year as a private lawyer who devoted much of her practice to bringing claims against the agency.” Ms. Patrick, whose attorney denies the charges and says they’re being brought against her in retaliation for whistleblowing about agency wrongdoing, has been active on a Washington State Bar Association panel promoting “access to justice“. (Sam Skolnik, “Lawyer allegedly violated ethics”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 22).
July 12 — Battered? Hand over your kids. Latest advance in child protection: seizing and placing in foster care children whose moms are abused by their husbands or boyfriends or vice versa. New York City can remove kids from their homes if either parent is believed to “engage in acts of domestic violence,” such as slaps, kicks, shoves, or more serious violence, whether or not these acts are directed at the children. “Often,” reports the New York Times‘s Somini Sengupta, the parent who loses children this way “may have done nothing wrong or negligent, but simply lacked the financial or emotional resources to leave an abusive partner.” The rules encourage victims of abuse to conceal it, fearing their kids will be taken from them if they tell medical or social workers. And while it’s clearly not good for a child to observe parents engaged in domestic battles, advocates say the city underestimates the trauma to kids of being yanked out of the home they know and sent to live among strangers. (Somini Sengupta, “Tough Justice: Taking a Child When One Parent Is Battered”, New York Times, July 8 (reg)). Update Oct. 31, 2004: New York high court ruling favorable to mothers; Dec. 19, 2004 city agrees to change policy.
July 12 — Forum-shopping in South Carolina. Last year, AP reports, the big railroad CSX paid out about $5 million in five accident lawsuits filed in Hampton County, S.C., and it faces another 15 cases pending in the county, all represented by the Hampton law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick. However, none of the five accidents being sued over had actually taken place in Hampton County; all had been taken there from elsewhere in search of the plaintiff-friendly brand of justice handed out in the impoverished county, where 40 percent of residents have not graduated high school. “They are poor people who don’t like big corporations,” said Dick Harpootlian, a prominent plaintiff’s lawyer in the state capital, Columbia, as well as chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. “We don’t mind being there if we belong there, but these cases are being valued at between two and three times what they would elsewhere,” said Jim Lady, a lawyer for the railroad, who adds that it would be equally unfair if the law permitted his client to remove all cases to Lexington County, where jurors are known as being as conservative as those in Hampton are liberal. Now a move is afoot in the state legislature to curb forum-shopping by giving plaintiffs a choice of at most three venues: the one where the accident took place, the one where they live, or the one where the railroad is headquartered. Trial lawyers are upset: “If they are paying us more than what they are paying elsewhere, it’s because they are not paying fairly in other counties,” says Johnny Parker, a lawyer with the Peters firm in Hampton. State Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), whose district includes Hampton County and who also happens to be a trial attorney, says that the move “smacks of special-interest legislation … Every courthouse in this state is presided over by a judge. If CSX doesn’t like the result of a court case, they have the right to appeal. It’s not the law firm that’s being punished, it’s the person bringing the suit.” The Virginia legislature some years back enacted similar legislation curbing the ability of lawyers from around the state to file railroad suits in the city of Portsmouth, where juries had a reputation for big-ticket verdicts. (Associated Press, “Bill would make generous Hampton County juries unavilable in many railroad suits,” South Carolina state/regional wire, June 12).
July 12 — Suing Nike for getting hacked. Some Web-watchers have been predicting (see Feb. 26) that lawsuits may be forthcoming attempting to lay the costs of hacker attacks on deep-pocket entities that, it’s argued, should have done more to prevent them. Now a Web entrepreneur named Greg Lloyd Smith says his lawyers are drawing up a complaint against Nike. “His beef: When Nike’s website was hijacked [last month], whoever hijacked the domain re-directed Nike.com’s traffic through Smith’s Web servers in the U.K., bogging them down and costing Smith’s Web hosting company time and money.” (Craig Bicknell, “Whom to Sue for Nike.com Hack?”, Wired News, June 29; “Webjackers Do It To Nike”, Wired News, June 21).
July 11 — Australia: antibias laws curb speech. An official civil-rights tribunal in New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia, has ruled that the Australian Financial Review committed an unlawful act of bias when it published an article on its opinion page making slighting comments about Palestinians. The offending piece, a short item by journalist Tom Switzer, had suggested that Palestinians had engaged in acts of terrorism, could not be trusted in Mideast peace talks, and remained “vicious thugs who show no serious willingness to comply with agreements”. The tribunal “found it was irrelevant whether the author intended to incite racial hatred or whether anyone had in fact been incited”, and dismissed a free-comment defense as irrelevant. It has yet to decide on a “remedy” for the speech; among its powers are to order a retraction and apology, and to order the paper, which is owned by the John Fairfax Group, to “implement a program or policy aimed at eliminating unlawful discrimination”. (Mike Seccombe, “Finding ‘restricts’ freedom of speech”, Sydney Morning Herald, Jul. 10) (via Freedom News Daily).
July 11 — “Report on medical errors called erroneous”. You read it here first (see Feb. 22, Feb. 28, March 7 commentaries): more critics are stepping forward to find fault with that highly publicized study alleging that “medical errors” kill between 44,000 and 98,000 patients a year. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, three doctors associated with the University of Indiana’s Regenstreif Institute explain why they believe the study is so constructed as to exaggerate the avoidable damage done by medical mistakes, and study author Lucian Leape, of Harvard’s School of Public Health, responds with a defense. (Rick Weiss, “Report on Medical Errors Called Erroneous”, Washington Post, July 5; Clement J. McDonald; Michael Weiner; Siu L. Hui, “Deaths Due to Medical Errors Are Exaggerated in Institute of Medicine Report” (text) (pdf); Lucian L. Leape, “Institute of Medicine Medical Error Figures Are Not Exaggerated” (text) (pdf), JAMA, July 5 (table of contents))
July 11 — ADA’s unintended consequences. The Americans with Disabilities Act was supposed to improve the employment outlook for disabled persons, but instead their participation in the labor force has plunged steeply since the act’s passage compared with that of the able-bodied. Thomas DeLeire, assistant professor at the University of Chicago, Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, analyzed data for a sample of men aged 18 to 65 and found that labor force participation fell after the act for virtually every identifiable subgroup of disabled men, but that the relative slippage was worst for those with lower levels of job experience and education, and those with mental impairments. DeLeire believes the law has imposed on employers perverse incentives not to hire and retain disabled workers, since they now risk the possibility of costly and uncertain disputes should they differ with the worker about what constitutes “reasonable” (and thus obligatory) accommodation. (“The Unintended Consequences of the Americans with Disabilities Act”, Regulation, v. 23, no. 1 — table of contents links to pdf document).