July 2001 archives, part 3


July 31 – 1.5 million pages served on Overlawyered.com. Last month set a new visitor traffic record, and this month will set another one …. Thanks for your support!

July 31 – N.J.: 172 nabbed on fake car-crash charges. “Capping a 19-month investigation, prosecutors [July 19] announced the indictment of 172 people in New Jersey, including a medical doctor, a lawyer and two chiropractors, charging them with staging 19 automobile accidents and filing false medical claims totaling more than $5 million. …’Runners’ would recruit drivers and passengers, who would meet ahead of time, typically in West New York, N.J., to discuss details of the staged collisions, which were mostly minor,” according to first assistant Hudson County prosecutor Terrence Hull. “Participants were paid up to $2,500 and would be coached about the types of injuries to fake, Mr. Hull said.” (“False Claims From Fake Crashes Leads [sic] to Charges Against 172″, New York Times, July 20, not online). Meanwhile, a detailed Boston Globe front-page investigation finds that lawyers employing “runners” to bring in accident business are contributing to a sharp run-up in the cost of auto insurance fraud in Massachusetts; one of the state’s biggest personal injury law firms “is under investigation by federal authorities for participating in a criminal scheme that resulted in more than $50,000 worth of claims being filed from a staged accident.” (Stephen Kurkjian, “Injury claims flourish in loophole”, Boston Globe, July 16; “Study ID’s high injury claim areas”, July 19). “Massachusetts is not alone in experiencing a dramatic increase in payments for suspicious injuries from minor automobile accidents. Fed by runners who are arranging for faked accidents and phony personal injury claims, medical payments made by auto insurers jumped by more than 30 percent last year in New York, according to a study by the Insurance Information Institute, an industry research group, in March.” (more).

July 31 – Global warming suit? “States like Bangladesh that are the victims of climate change have a good case in law for suing polluters like the United States for billions of dollars, a law professor will tell a London conference today. With the US delaying action on climate change and President George Bush refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol, the case for court action is becoming overwhelming, according to Andrew Strauss, of the school of law at Widener University, Delaware.” (Paul Brown, “Rich nations ‘could be sued’ by climate victims”, The Guardian (U.K.), July 10) (& see Aug. 19, 1999).

July 31 – “The Lost Art of Drawing the Line”. “The air in America is so thick with legal risk that you can practically cut it and put in on a scale,” says Philip Howard, attorney at Covington & Burling and author of the new book The Lost Art of Drawing the Line, which was preceded by his bestselling The Death of Common Sense. Howard is working with the founders of the Concord Coalition to establish something to be called the Common Sense Coalition. “The trial lawyers have to be taken on,” he says. “Leadership is required by whoever can get public attention.” (Lucy Morgan, “Author sees good sense as cure for what ails us”, St. Petersburg Times, July 28; official book site; Diane Rehm show, June 5; William Galston, “The Art of Judgement” (review), Washington Monthly, July/August; Cass Sunstein, “The Stifled Society” (review), The New Republic, July 9; Pete DuPont, National Center for Policy Analysis, “Drawing the Line”, May 1).

July 30 – “Couple sues over flaming Pop-Tart”. In Washington Township, N.J., Brenda Hurff and her husband are “suing the Kellogg Co. for $100,000 in damages caused to their home when an unattended Pop-Tart allegedly burst into flames inside their toaster.” A spokesman for the Battle Creek, Mich., cereal maker counters: “Pop-Tarts are safe and do not cause fires.” (Reuters/CNN, July 28; Jake Wagman, “From toaster to lawsuit”, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 28).

July 30 – Mommy, can I grow up to be an informant? Controversy mounts over large payouts ($40 million in one case, $25 million in another) under the False Claims Act to “whistle-blowers” who rat out overbilling by government contractors in health care, defense and other areas. “‘I think it’s a ridiculous ripoff of the taxpayers’ money,’ said U.S. Representative John Duncan, a Texas Republican, who has proposed a $1 million cap on rewards. ‘I don’t mind some compensation for these people, but I do not think they should be allowed to make off like bandits.’” A lawyer who represented one of the informants in the $40 million case takes a different view: ”It’s almost got to be set up like the lottery or very few people in their right mind would do this.” An informant given only $12 million for his work on an overbilling case against Quorum Health Group has gone to court to demand more, calling the figure “insulting” (Alice Dembner, “Whistle-blower windfalls questioned”, Boston Globe, July 29). Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act’s informant (“relator”) provisions, but ruled that state governments cannot be named as defendants (Francis J. Serbaroli, “Supreme Court Clarifies, Broadens Antifraud Laws”, New York Law Journal, July 27, 2000, reprinted at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft site)(more on False Claims Act: Sept. 9, 1999; Jan. 18, 2000; April 30, 2001).

July 30 – N.J. court declares transsexuals protected class. Earlier this month an appeals court in the Garden State ruled that “gender dysphoria”, or dissatisfaction with the gender one has been assigned at birth, is protected as a handicap under the state’s disabled-rights law. In addition, it declared that by banning employers from discriminating on grounds of sex the law actually bans them from discriminating on the basis of “qualities society considers masculine or feminine”. The American Civil Liberties Union was overjoyed, but our editor, quoted by Fox News, was not. (Catherine Donaldson-Evans, “Transsexual Rights in Spotlight Following N.J. Court Ruling That Condition a Handicap”, Fox News, July 9; Mary P. Gallagher, “Transsexuals Held to be Protected Class Under New Jersey Law”, New Jersey Law Journal, July 11) (more transsexualism cases: March 23, 2001, May 31, 2000).

July 27-29 – Welcome New York Times readers. John Tierney’s column on overzealous prosecution quotes our editor and mentions this site. (“The Big City: Prosecutors Never Need to Apologize”, July 27)(reg).

July 27-29 – Report: “medical errors” studies overblown. “Alarming studies suggesting that medical errors kill close to 100,000 U.S. hospital patients each year probably overestimate the problem, with the real total perhaps 5,000 to 15,000, researchers say.” Readers of this space will not be surprised. The higher estimates have been much cited by Ralph Nader and others to promote medical malpractice litigation, but they rest on case-review studies whose format is problematic because reviewing doctors show little consensus as to which cases involve errors and which errors cause or hasten death, according to the new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In addition, “clinicians estimated that only 0.5 percent of patients who died would have lived three months or more in good cognitive health if care had been optimal.” (“Number of Medical-Error Deaths Overestimated, Researchers Say”, AP/ FoxNews.com, July 24; “Researchers Question Data on Fatal Medical Errors”, Reuters/ABC News, July 24; “Findings: Study Disputes Report on Fatal Medical Errors”, Washington Post, July 25; Rodney A. Hayward and Timothy P. Hofer, “Estimating Hospital Deaths Due to Medical Errors: Preventability Is in the Eye of the Reviewer,” JAMA, July 25; National Academies report on medical errors, 1999).

July 27-29 – Needed: assumption of risk. Community swimming holes are disappearing, and one reason is landowners’ fear of litigation, reports the New York Times. “In New York, landowners have become particularly wary of swimmers,” because state law pointedly omits swimming from a list of activities that they can permit to visitors without fear of liability. “Though recreation groups have lobbied to expand the law to include swimming, these efforts have been blocked by the state’s trial lawyers. ‘We have done everything we could to slip it in,’ said Neil F. Woodworth, deputy executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. (Winnie Hu, “Keep Out: The Water’s Fine, but Private”, New York Times, July 23 (reg)). First-time skydiver Paul Bloebaum is suing Archway Skydiving Center in Vandalia, Ill. over injuries incurred in his maiden jump; he “wants a judge to throw out the lengthy waiver he signed before he jumped and make Archway responsible for his injuries. Bloebaum wrote his initials beside all 25 paragraphs of the release.” (“Company Sued Over Skydiver’s Fall”, AP/Fox News, July 25). And Atlanta Braves outfielders, after catching third outs to end an inning, routinely throw the balls to fans in the stands, but now a woman is suing star centerfielder Andruw Jones saying she was hit in the face when he did that recently (Carroll Rogers, “Bullpen becoming a strength”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 22 (third item)). However, a Michigan appeals court “has overturned a million-dollar verdict against the Detroit Tigers for injuries suffered by a child hit by a baseball bat splinter.” (Alan Fisk, “$1 Million Ballpark Injury Award Strikes Out”, National Law Journal, July 27).

July 27-29 – Chandra, Monica, and sex-harass law. Why is the furtive liaison between the ardent young woman and the powerful older man still so common in Washington, D.C.? “Politicians are immune from the sexual harassment systems that protect young women in corporate workplaces and academia, where the presumption has become that the older male will say no or face brutal consequences. These kinds of advances would cost your political science professor his job. In an office, it would be sexual harassment. In D.C., it’s still 1951, and young girls are still curvy temptresses.” (Dahlia Lithwick, “G-Girl Confidential”, Slate, July 25).

July 27-29 – Feeling queasy? Litigation over E. coli food poisoning has proliferated rapidly, so much so that there’s now a law firm whose specialty consists of filing cases over the nasty bacterium. (“E. Coli’s Twisted Tale of Science in the Courtroom and Politics in the Lab”, Los Angeles Times, June 6, reprinted at STATS).

July 26 – Welcome CourtTV.com visitors. This week the cable network’s online “Caught in the Web” feature profiles “the hub of all things legally absurd on the Net”, from its origins on our editor’s hard drive as “an out-of-control file of favorite bookmarks” to our current popularity on who knows how many continents (key to the editorial mix: “frequent food pellets” so that you regular readers “keep on pressing the lever”). Seriously, this counts as the most comprehensive profile of the site that’s appeared anywhere, for which we’re grateful to CourtTV.com correspondent Adrien Seybert (the opening Shakespeare line didn’t actually come up in our talk, though) (“Chasing the Ambulance Chasers”, July 25). Also: we’re a web pick of the week for Australia’s FHM (“It’s a Guy Thing”); Herff.com (“Neat stuff on the Internet” — see “Shark Indigestion”); Follow Me Here weblog, early July (450k).

July 26 – Dispute over $118 pizza bill costs $18,000. Nebraska: “Lancaster District Court Clerk Kelly Guenzel is now pondering whether she should go to court to force the county to pay the $18,000-plus in legal fees she racked up defending herself against a charge she misused public funds in reimbursing herself for $118.76 worth of pizza.” (“Pizza bill just grows and grows” (editorial), Lincoln Journal-Star, undated (sent to us July 20))

July 26 – Latex liability, foreseeable or not. “Bucking a national trend in design defect cases, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a jury’s finding that a brand of latex gloves was defectively designed, even though no one, including the manufacturer, was aware of latex-related health problems until years after the brand was put on the market.” Rejecting the argument that the company should be liable only for foreseeable risks, the court ordered Smith & Nephew AHP Inc. to pay $1 million to Linda M. Green, who developed a latex allergy from the naturally occurring substances found in the gloves. (Gary Young, “Defective Latex Glove Costs $1 Million”, National Law Journal, July 23).

July 26 – “Criminals could sue their victims”. Dateline U.K.: “Criminals could find it easier to sue members of the public who injure them while defending their homes, under Law Commission reforms proposed yesterday. … The recommendations are open for consultation until the autumn when a final report is made to Parliament.” (Frances Gibb, The Times (London), June 29).

July 26 – Quiz: which are the made-up cases? Funny L.A. Times feature where you have to guess which outlandish news report isn’t true: “Hypersensitivity, political correctness and frivolous lawsuits are taking over the world. Increase your awareness with this handy quiz.” (Roy Rivenburg, “It’s Truly a Dangerous World Out There”, July 24) (via Kausfiles).

July 25 – By reader acclaim: “Parents file suit over son’s drug death”. “The parents of an 18-year-old University of Florida student who died after taking OxyContin last year have filed a lawsuit against the drug’s manufacturer and the pharmacy chain where one of Matthew Kaminer’s friends stole the painkiller.” Kaminer was found dead in a fraternity house bedroom after taking one of the pills, stolen by another student from an Eckerd drugstore. “The powerful painkiller was designed to combat chronic pain with a time-release formula,” but abusers chew the capsules in order to get “an immediate, heroin-like high.” The parents are blaming drugmaker Purdue Pharma as well as the Eckerd chain. (Erika Bolstad, Miami Herald, July 24) (via WSJ OpinionJournal.com “Best of the Web“).

July 25 – 220 percent rate of farmer participation. “In a 1999 major class-action settlement, the Clinton administration agreed to pay $50,000 to each black farmer who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the federal government. As of 2001, some 40,000 people have applied for their cash. The problem is, according to the Census Bureau, there are only 18,000 black farmers in the country.” (Steve Brown, “Settlement Is a Crass-Action, USDA Employees Say”, Fox News, July 14).

July 25 – “Trial lawyers derail Maryland small claims reform”. “In an unexpected setback to small claims reform, on May 17 Maryland Governor Parris Glendening vetoed HALT-supported legislation, despite its unanimous approval by both houses of the state legislature.” The legislation would have raised the jurisdiction of Maryland’s small claims court from $2,500 to $5,000, and eliminated formal pleadings in cases below $2,500, reducing the occasion for disputants to hire lawyers. “According to his message, Glendening acted in response to concerns that ‘prompted the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association to request a veto of this bill.’ … The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association organization was one of the largest institutional supporters of Glendening’s 1998 reelection campaign, donating $12,000 to him directly and spending about $110,000 on radio and television advertisements supporting him.” (Tom Gordon, HALT.org “Legal Reformer”, Spring) (more on small claims: Sept. 29, Oct. 3 and (letters) Oct. 5, 2000) (& see letter to the editor, Aug. 1).

July 25 – Yesterday’s visitors to this site came from domains including eop.gov, usdoj.gov, sec.gov, nrc.gov, treas.gov, ornl.gov; dowjones.com, trib.com, usnews.com, disney.com; boeing.com, gendyn.com, lucent.com, ibm.com, fujitsu.com, honeywell.com, att.com, philips.com, pg.com, ual.com, oracle.com, cat.com, sun.com, cisco.com, intel.com, pge.com, roche.com…

…columbia.edu, uiuc.edu, asu.edu, uncg.edu, american.edu, lu.se, uoregon.edu, ucsd.edu, stanford.edu, utoronto.ca, gatech.edu, rutgers.edu, auckland.ac.nz, wustl.edu, upenn.edu; state.mn.us, state.fl.us, state.oh.us, state.mo.us; omm.com, debevoise.com, kirkland.com, ffhsj.com, lockeliddell.com, corboydemetrio.com, atlahq.org (which has been poking around here a lot lately); army.mil, af.mil, navy.mil, nipr.mil; thehartford.com, prudential.com, statefarm.com, travelers.com, fanniemae.com, bear.com, schwab.com, jpmorgan.com, socgen.com, agedwards.com, norwest.com, tiaa-cref.org; cato.org, cir-usa.org; jcpenney.com, fedex.com, ups.com; bigpond.com, gc.ca, gov.au, and asce.org, among many, many others including countless local ISPs. Moral: your competitors read us regularly, so there’s no reason why you should feel guilty about doing so too.

July 24 – “The Louima millions”. “Last week, after the Giuliani administration and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association agreed to pay [Abner] Louima nearly $9 million to settle his police brutality lawsuit, Louima said he did not feel like a rich man. That’s because Louima cannot touch one dime until he settles a bitter quarrel with [his lawyers]“. The dispute pits the lesser-known attorneys who originally represented Louima against the high-profile trio of Johnnie Cochran, Barry Scheck, and Peter Neufeld (“Johnnie- come- latelies”) who took over afterward. Before getting to the juicy particulars, be sure to catch the opening quote, from an attorney named Harold J. Reynolds: “So ingrained and unexamined is the notion of the one-third contingency fee that it has taken on the character of a natural law. … if liability and recovery were certain, then there is no contingency that Louima’s lawyer is risking … [and the operation of the fee percentage] would have done nothing except guarantee to that lawyer a freight train of money that should have been paid to Abner Louima.” (Peter Noel, Village Voice, July 18-24). More on why contingency fees are so seldom discounted: Judyth Pendell (Manhattan Institute), “Price Colluder, Esq.”, Forbes, July 23, reprinted at MI site. Update: see Nov. 8-10, 2002.

July 24 – Junk fax litigation: blood in the water. We’ve covered the saga of junk fax litigation, in which federal law allows class action lawyers to demand $500-$1,500 per unsolicited fax sent, which means the sums at stake can quickly mount up to enormous levels (see Oct. 22, 1999; March 3, 2000; March 27, 2001). Now the New York Times weighs in to report a number of recent breakthroughs for the lawyers, including a recent $12 million judgment that forced Hooters of Augusta, Ga., a unit of the national restaurant chain, to declare bankruptcy; it had been an advertiser in six omnibus fax mailings sent to 1,321 customers. Some more new developments: “Last month, a South Carolina judge approved a settlement of another class-action suit in which a North Charleston Ramada Inn paid $450,000 for sending thousands of faxes advertising a New Year’s Eve celebration. Last week, a Texas judge authorized a class-action trial of claims on behalf of thousands of people who received fax advertisements from an apartment rental company.” (William Glaberson, New York Times, July 22 (reg)).

July 24 – “Melbourne man patents the wheel”. “A Melbourne man has patented the wheel. Freelance patent attorney John Keogh was issued with an Innovation Patent for a ‘circular transportation facilitation device’ within days of the new patent system being invoked in May. But he has no immediate plans to patent fire, crop rotation or other fundamental advances in civilisation. Mr Keogh said he patented the wheel to prove the innovation patent system was flawed because it did not need to be examined by the patent office, IP Australia.” (Nathan Cochrane, The Age (Melbourne), July 2).

July 23 – “2nd Circuit Upholds Sanctions Against Firms for Frivolous Securities Claims”. “The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld sanctions against two law firms for pursuing frivolous securities claims. New York’s Schoengold & Sporn and Philadelphia’s Berger & Montague were sanctioned a total of $84,153 based on the fact that under a settlement advocated by Schoengold & Sporn, the plaintiff class in the case would have received nothing, while the firm would have been paid $200,000.” Trial judge Shira Scheindlin had reduced the sanctions against Berger & Montague after concluding that it had acted to a significant extent at the direction of the other class-action firm. (Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal, July 16).

July 23 – Stories that got away. News items from recent months that fell through our editorial cracks at the time, but better late than never:

* Sacramento Bee investigation of the state of the environmentalist movement includes a look at the extent to which some lawyers may be using endangered-species complaints as a way of generating legal fees for themselves (Tom Knudson, “Litigation central: A flood of costly lawsuits raises questions about motive”, April 24) (series). See also Michael Grunwald, “Endangered List Faces New Peril,” Washington Post, March 12; “Protect Animals, Not Lawyers” (editorial), Detroit News, May 7; “Congress Grapples With Endangered Species Law”, AP/Fox News, May 9. And the more recent controversy over agricultural water use in Klamath Falls, Ore., reminds us of the “enclosures” by which upper-class landowners tossed tenant farmers off the land in early industrial England: Michael Kelly, “Evicted by Environmentalists”, Washington Post, July 11 (& letter to the editor in response from Brock Evans, July 13).

* The still-in-progress controversy over whether the Digital Millennium Copyright Act really allows the recording industry to keep a Princeton professor from publishing a research paper on the subject of breaking digital music encryption (Declan McCullagh, “Watermark Crackers Back Away”, Wired News, April 26; Janelle Brown, “Is the RIAA running scared?”, Salon.com, April 26; Brenda Sandburg, “Recording Industry Sued in Battle Over Research”, The Recorder, June 7). See also Carl S. Kaplan, “CyberLaw Journal: Does an Anti-Piracy Plan Quash the First Amendment?”, New York Times, April 27; Brad King, “ISPs Face Down DMCA”, Wired News, Dec. 23, 2000).

* That odd case from Everett, Wash. where a federal judge “has thrown out the kidnapping and sexual assault convictions of a man who had argued he was not responsible for those crimes because another of his 24 separate personalities had committed it.” A Snohomish County judge declared the multiple personality defense inadmissible, but “U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle ruled Friday that it was up to the trial court to clarify the question for jurors by establishing standards for assessing legal responsibility.” (“Judge Throws Out Conviction of Multi-Personality Defendant”, AP/Fox News, June 12).