June 2000 archives, part 3


June 30-July 2 – “Backstage at News of the Weird”. Chuck Shepherd writes the sublime “News of the Weird” feature, which is syndicated weekly to major papers and alternative weeklies nationwide. From time to time he’s asked which are “his favorite online scanning sites for weird news”. This site came in #4 of 6 — you’ll want to check out the whole list. (June 19).

Remarkable stories from the legal system turn up nearly every week both in “News of the Weird” and in the more recently launched “Backstage” column. Here’s one from the same June 19 number: “An Adel, Ga., man sued the maker of Liquid Fire drain cleaner for this injury (and follow this closely): LF comes in a special bottle with skull and crossbones and many warnings, but our guy thought, on his own that the bottle’s spout just might drip, so he poured the contents into his own bottle (which he thought would be drip-proof), whose packaging wasn’t able to withstand the LF and began to disintegrate immediately, causing the contents to spill onto his leg. So now he wants $100k for that.”

June 30-July 2 – Supreme Court vindicates Boy Scouts’ freedom. Matthew Berry, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who helped write an amicus brief for Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, explains why the principle of freedom of association that protects the Boy Scouts from government dictation of its membership is also crucial in protecting the freedom of gays and lesbians (“Free To Be Us Alone”, Legal Times, April 24) (case, Boy Scouts of America et al v. Dale, at FindLaw). See also Independent Gay Forum entries on the subject by Tom Palmer and Stephen H. Miller.

June 30-July 2 – “DOJ’s Got the Antitrust Itch”. After a decade or two of quiescence, antitrust is on the rampage again, led by Joel Klein and other officials at the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. (Declan McCullagh, Wired News, June 28).

June 30-July 2 – “Being a Lefty Has Its Ups and Downs”. Letter to the editor published in yesterday’s New York Times from our editor runs as follows: “To the Editor: At the City Council’s hearing on whether left-handed people should be protected by anti-discrimination law (Elizabeth Bumiller, “Council Urged to End a Most Sinister Bias”, June 22), a high school student called it discriminatory that banisters and handrails are often on the right side of public stairwells — at least from the perspective of someone climbing up. But people walk on stairs in both directions. It would seem the same stairwell that oppressively discriminates against lefties on the way up also discriminates against righties on the way down. Can they sue, too?

“The student also asserted that ‘societal discrimination results in the death of the left-handed population an average of 14 years earlier than the right-handed population.’ However, the study that purported to reveal such a gap was soon refuted. A 1993 study by the National Institute on Aging found no increase in mortality associated with handedness — not surprisingly, since insurance actuaries would long ago have made it their business to uncover such a correlation.” — Very truly yours, etc. (no longer online) (more on life expectancy controversy: APA Monitor, Psychological Bulletin, Am Journal Epidem — via Dr. Dave and Dee).

Postscript: Scott Shuger in SlateToday’s Papers” promptly took a whack at us over the above letter, claiming we didn’t realize that big stairwells at places like high schools have two-way traffic patterns where people keep to the right, leaving lefties without a rail for the handy hand whether headed up or down. But if anything, this proves our point that the issue isn’t, as had been claimed, the insensitive decision to place handrails on one side but not the other: typically these larger stairwells have handrails on both sides. Instead the broader culprit for those who wish to steady themselves with their left hand is the walk-on-the-right convention. Had the advocate of an antidiscrimination law acknowledged that point, however, much of the steam would have gone out of her argument, since few in her audience would have been inclined to view the walk-on-the-right convention as fixable “discrimination”. Nor is there anything in the original coverage to indicate that her gripe was at the absence of center rails, which have inconveniences of their own.

June 29 – Failure to warn about bad neighborhoods. “A Florida jury has awarded $5.2 million to the family of a slain tourist after finding that Alamo Rent-A-Car failed to warn the victim and her husband about a high-crime area near Miami.” Dutch tourists Gerrit and Tosca Dieperink, according to the National Law Journal, “rented an Alamo car in Tampa and planned to drop it off in Miami”. When they stopped in the Liberty City area of Miami to ask directions, they were targeted by robbers who recognized the car as rented, and Mrs. Dieperink was shot and killed. Lawyers for her survivors sued Alamo, saying it was negligent for the company not to have warned customers — even customers renting in Tampa, across the state — of the perilousness of the Liberty City neighborhood, where there’d been numerous previous attacks on rental car patrons. After circuit judge Phil Bloom instructed the jury that Alamo had a duty to warn its customers of foreseeable criminal conduct, jurors took only an hour of deliberations to find the company liable, following a seven-day trial. (Bill Rankin, “Alamo’s Costly Failure to Warn”, National Law Journal, May 22; Susan R. Miller, “Trail of Tears”, Miami Daily Business Review, May 8.)

Which of course raises the question: how many different kinds of legal trouble would Alamo have gotten into if it had warned its customers to stay out of certain neighborhoods? Numerous businesses have come under legal fire for discriminating against certain parts of town in dispatching service or delivery crews (“pizza redlining”); one of the more recent suits was filed by a civil rights group against online home-delivery service Kozmo.com, which offers to bring round its video, CD and food items in only some neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., mostly in affluent Northwest. (Elliot Zaret & Brock N. Meeks, “Kozmo’s digital dividing lines”, MSNBC/ZDNet, April 12; Martha M. Hamilton, “Web Retailer Kozmo Accused of Redlining”, Washington Post, April 14).

June 29 – “Angela’s Ashes” suit. Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, Tis) and his brother Malachy (A Monk Swimming) have had a runaway success with their memoirs of growing up poor in Ireland and emigrating to America (4 million copies have sold of Angela’s alone). Now they’re being sued by Mike Houlihan, “who in the early 1980s raised $20,750 to stage and produce a McCourt brothers play called ‘A Couple of Blaguards,'” also based on their early life. The play had only modest success, though it has begun to be revived frequently with the success of the memoir books. Mr. Houlihan says he and several others are entitled to 40 percent of the profits from Angela’s Ashes and the other memoirs because they are a “subsidiary work” of the play. “That would be a nice piece of money, wouldn’t it?” says Frank McCourt, who says his old associate “has hopped on America’s favorite form of transportation — the bandwagon”. (Joseph T. Hallinan, “Backers of McCourt’s Old Play Say They Are Due Royalties”, Wall Street Journal, June 6 (fee)).

June 29 – “Trying a Case To the Two Minute Mind”. California attorney Mark Pulliam passes this one on: a recent brochure from the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association offered a sale on educational videos for practicing litigators, of which one, by Craig McClellan, Esq., was entitled “Trying a Case To the Two Minute Mind; aka Trial by Sound Bite” (worth one hour in continuing legal education credits). According to the brochure, “The presentation shows how to streamline each element of a trial based on the fact that most jurors are used to getting a complete story within a two minute maximum segment on the evening news. This video demonstrates the effectiveness of visual aids, impact words and even colors, to influence the juror’s perception and thought process in the least amount of time.”

June 28 – Oracle did it. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that the big software maker and Microsoft rival has acknowledged it was the client that hired detective firm Investigative Group International Inc. for an elaborate yearlong operation to gather dirt on policy groups allied with Microsoft; the detective firm then offered to pay maintenance workers for at least one of the groups’ trash (see June 26). “The IGI investigator who led the company’s Microsoft project, Robert M. Walters, 61 years old, resigned Friday after he was named in stories about the case.” Oracle claims to have no knowledge of or involvement with illegalities — buying trash isn’t in itself necessarily unlawful — and IGI also says it obeys the law. (Glenn R. Simpson and Ted Bridis, “Oracle Admits It Hired Agency To Investigate Allies of Microsoft”, June 28 (fee))

June 28 – Born to regulate. Opponents say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “ergonomics” proposals would tie America’s employers in knots in the name of protecting workers from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries (see March 17), and resistance from the business community is stiff enough that the regs ran into a roadblock in the Senate last week. However, Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online reports that “Marthe Kent, OSHA’s director of safety standards program and head of the ergonomics effort, couldn’t be happier at her job. ‘I like having a very direct and very powerful impact on worker safety and health,’ she recently told The Synergist, a newsletter of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. ‘If you put out a reg, it matters. I think that’s really where the thrill comes from. And it is a thrill; it’s a high.’ Later in the article, she adds, ‘I love it; I absolutely love it. I was born to regulate. I don’t know why, but that’s very true. So as long as I’m regulating, I’m happy.'” (Ramesh Ponnuru, “The Ergonomics of Joy” (second item), National Review Online Washington Bulletin, June 26). See also “Senate Blocks Ergonomic Safety Standards”, Reuters/Excite, June 22; Murray Weidenbaum, “Workplace stress is declining. Does OSHA notice?”, Christian Science Monitor, June 15.

June 28 – Giuliani’s blatant forum-shopping. Time was when lawyers showed a guilty conscience about the practice of “shopping” for favorable judges, and were quick to deny that they’d attempted any such thing, lest people think their client’s case so weak that other judges might have thrown it out of court. Now they openly boast about it, as in the case of New York City’s recently announced plans to sue gun makers. The new legal action, reports Paul Barrett of the news-side Wall Street Journal, could “prove especially threatening to the industry because Mr. Hess (Michael Hess, NYC Corporation Counsel) said the city would file it in federal court in Brooklyn. The goal in doing so would be to steer the suit to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who is known for allowing creative liability theories. … Mr. Hess said that New York will ask Judge Weinstein to preside over its suit because it is ‘related’ to the earlier gun-liability case [Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, now on appeal.]” (See also Nov. 1). (“New York City Intends to File Lawsuit Against Approximately 25 Gun Makers”, June 20 (fee)).

June 28 – From our mail sack: transactional-lawyer whimsy. New York attorney John Brewer writes: “This may just be a bit of transactional lawyer inside humor, or it may be evidence that the agnostic and individualistic themes in our culture have finally penetrated lawyers’ contract boilerplate (which for a variety of reasons tends to be an extraordinarily conservative-to-anachronistic form of stylized discourse). According to the April 2000 issue of Corporate Control Alert [not online to our knowledge], a provision in the documentation for the 1998 acquisition of International Management Services Inc. by Celestica Inc. contained a definition which read in part as follows:

“Material Adverse Change” or “Material Adverse Effect” means, when used in connection with the Company or Parent, as the case may be, any change or effect, as the case may be, caused by an act of God (or other supernatural body mutually acceptable to the parties) …

“In a sign that some of the old certitude remains, however,” John adds, “the accompanying article referred colloquially to the clause containing this language as a “hell-or-high-water” provision without any suggestion of mutually acceptable alternative places of everlasting torment.”

June 27– Welcome New Republic readers. Senior writer Jodie Allen of U.S. News & World Report tells us we’re her favorite website, which we consider proof we’re on the right track. Writing the New Republic’s “TRB from Washington” column this week, her theme is our legal system’s willingness to entertain all sorts of remarkable new rights-assertions that might have left Thomas Jefferson scratching his head, and she says readers who want more “can monitor such cases at Overlawyered.com.” We’ll help with the following thumbnail link-guide to cases mentioned in the column: drunken airline passenger, child left in hot van, right to non-sticky candy, bank robber and tear gas device, beer drinker’s restroom suit & Disneyland characters glimpsed out of uniform, haunted house too scary, high-voltage tower climber (& second case), killer whale skinny dip, obligation to host rattlesnakes, parrot-dunking, Ohio boys’ baseball team, school administrator’s felony, stripper’s rights, and murderer’s suit against her psychiatrists. (“Rights and Wrongs”, July 3). (DURABLE LINK)

June 27 – Reprimand “very serious” for teacher. Norwalk, Ct.: “After an in-house investigation that lasted more than a month, Carleton Bauer, the Ponus Ridge Middle School teacher who gave an 11-year-old girl money to purchase marijuana, has been reprimanded with a letter in his file.” The girl’s father, who was not notified of the disciplinary action taken against the teacher but was contacted by the press, felt the teacher’s union had been allowed to negotiate too lenient a treatment for Bauer, a 31-year teaching veteran, but Interim Superintendent of Schools William Papallo called the penalty “fair and equitable”, saying, “For someone who has worked so long, a reprimand is very serious”. (Ashley Varese, “Ponus teacher ‘lacked judgment'”, Norwalk Hour, June 16, not online).

June 27 – Peter McWilliams, R.I.P. Although (see above item) there are times when our authorities can be lenient toward marijuana-related infractions, it’s more usual for them to maintain a posture of extreme severity, as in the case of well-known author, AIDS and cancer patient, and medical marijuana activist Peter McWilliams, whose nightmarish ordeal by prosecution ended last week with his death at age 50. (William F. Buckley Jr., Sacramento Bee, June 21; Jacob Sullum, Reason Online/Creators Syndicate, June 21; John Stossel/ABC News 20/20, “Hearing All the Facts”, June 9; J.D. Tuccille, Free-Market.Net Spotlight; Media Awareness Project).

June 27 – AOL “pop-up” class action. In Florida, Miami-Dade County Judge Fredricka Smith has granted class action status to a suit against America Online, purportedly on behalf of all hourly subscribers who viewed the service’s “pop-up” ads on paid time. Miami attorney Andrew Tramont argues that it’s wrong for subscribers to be hit with the ads since they’re paying by the minute for access to the service (at least if they’re past their allotment of free monthly time), and “time adds up” as they look at them — this, even though most users soon learn it takes only a second to click off an ad (“No thanks”) and even though the system has for some time let users set preferences to reduce or eliminate pop-ups. The case seeks millions in refunds for the time customers have spent perusing the ads. According to attorney Tramont, “the practice amounts to charging twice for the same product. ‘AOL gets money from advertisers, then money from subscribers, so they’re making double on the same time,’ he said.” Please don’t anyone call to his attention the phenomenon of “magazines”, or we’ll never get him out of court. (“Florida judge approves class-action lawsuit against America Online”, CNN, June 25).

June 26 – Cash for trash, and worse? We’re glad we didn’t play a prominent role in defending Microsoft in its antitrust dispute, since we’d have found it very intrusive and inconvenient to have our garbage rifled by private investigators and our laptops stolen, as has happened lately to a number of organizations that have allied themselves with the software giant in the controversy (Declan McCullagh, “MS Espionage: Cash for Trash”, Wired News, June 15; Ted Bridis, “Microsoft-Tied Groups Report Weird Incidents”, Wall Street Journal, June 19 (fee); Glenn Simpson, “IGI Comes Under Scrutiny in Attempt To Purchase Lobbying Group’s Trash”, Wall Street Journal, June 19) (fee); Ted Bridis and Glenn Simpson, “Detective Agency Obtained Documents On Microsoft at Two Additional Groups”, Wall Street Journal, June 23 (fee)). Material surreptitiously obtained from the National Taxpayers Union, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Independent Institute soon surfaced in unflattering journalistic reportage on these groups in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and two attempts were also made to get night cleaning crews to sell the trash of the pro-Microsoft Association for Competitive Technology. They’re calling it “Gatesgate”.

In other news, the New York Observer checks into what would happen if the giant company tried to flee to Canada to avoid the Justice Department’s clutches (answer: probably wouldn’t make any difference, they’d get nailed anyway) (Jonathan Goldberg, “The Vancouver Solution”, June 12). And over at the Brookings Institution, it’s a virtual civil war with fellow Robert Crandall arguing against a breakup and fellow Robert Litan in favor (Robert Crandall, “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It Up”, Wall Street Journal, June 14; Robert Litan, “The rewards of ending a monopoly”, Financial Times, Nov. 24; Robert Litan, “What light through yonder Windows breaks?”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 11, all reprinted at Brookings site).

June 26 – “Was Justice Denied?”. Dale Helmig was convicted of the murder of his mother Norma in Linn, Mo. This TNT special June 20 impressed the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz as making a powerful case for the unfairness of his conviction (“TV: Crime and Punishment”, June 19 (fee); TNT press release April 13). At the TNT site, links will lead you to more resources on errors of the criminal-justice system both real and alleged, including “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science” (DNA exonerations); “The Innocent Imprisoned“; Justice: Denied, The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted; CrimeLynx (criminal defense attorneys’ resource); and Jeralyn Merritt, “Could This Happen To Your Spouse or Child?” (Lawyers.com).

June 26 – Updates. Catching up on further developments in several stories previously covered in this space:

* In the continuing saga of leftist filmmaker Michael Moore (see Sept. 16), who made his name stalking the head of General Motors with a camera at social and business events (“Roger and Me”) and then called the cops when one of his own fired employees had the idea of doing the same thing to him, John Tierney of the New York Times has added many new details to what we knew before (“When Tables Turn, Knives Come Out”, June 17) (reg).

* Trial lawyers are perfectly livid about that New England Journal of Medicine study (see April 24) finding that car crash claimants experience less pain and disability under a no-fault system that resolves their claims relatively quickly. Now they’re throwing everything they can find at the study, lining up disgruntled former employees to question the researchers’ motives, saying the whole thing was tainted by its sponsorship by the Government of Saskatchewan (which runs a provincial auto insurance scheme), and so forth. (Association of Trial Lawyers of America page; Bob Van Voris, “No Gain, No Pain? Study Is Hot Topic”, National Law Journal, May 22).

* A Texas judge has entered a final judgment, setting the stage for appeal, against the lawyers he found had engaged in “knowingly and intentionally fraudulent” conduct in a product liability case against DaimlerChrysler where both physical evidence and witness testimony had been tampered with (see May 23). “Disbarment is a possible consequence, as are criminal charges, but none has yet been filed.” (Adolfo Pesquera, “Judge orders lawyers to pay $865,489″, San Antonio Express-News, Jun. 23). Update: see Mar. 17, 2003.

* It figures: no sooner had we praised the U.S. House of Representatives for cutting off funds for the federal tobacco suit (see Jun. 21) than it reversed itself and voted 215-183 to restore the funds (Alan Fram, “House OKs Funds for Tobacco Lawsuit”, AP/Yahoo, Jun. 23).

June 22-25 – Antitrust triumph. With great fanfare, the Federal Trade Commission announced this spring that it had broken up anticompetitive practices in the recording industry that were costing CD buyers from $2 to $5 a disc, saving consumers at least hundreds of millions of dollars. “So, how far have CD retail prices fallen since? Not a penny … Now, retail and music executives are accusing FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky of misleading consumers and feeding the media ‘artificially inflated’ pricing statistics, possibly to camouflage the lusterless findings of the FTC’s costly two-year investigation of CD advertising policies.” A commission spokesman says it can’t release the basis of its pricing study because it’s based on proprietary information. (Chuck Philips, “FTC Assailed on Failed CD Price Pledge”, Los Angeles Times, June 2).

June 22-25 – More trouble for “Brockovich” lawyers. Latest trouble for real-life L.A. law firm headed by Ed Masry, dramatized in the Julia Roberts hit film “Erin Brockovich“: a wrongful termination suit filed by former employee Kissandra Cohen, who at 21 years of age is the state’s youngest practicing lawyer. Cohen alleges that when she worked for Masry he “made repeated sexual advances, and when she did not respond, he fired her. Cohen, who is Jewish, also claims that Masry and other attorneys in his office made inappropriate comments about her Star of David necklace and attire” and kept copies of Playboy in the office lobby. Also recently, Brockovich’s ex-husband, ex-boyfriend and their attorney were arrested in a scheme in which they allegedly threatened that unless Masry and Brockovich saw that they were paid off they’d go to the press with scandalous allegations about the two (the sort of thing called “extortion” when it doesn’t take place in the context of a lawsuit). (“Sex Scandal for Brockovich Lawyer”, Mr. Showbiz, April 28).

June 22-25 – Compare and contrast: puppy’s life and human’s. Thanks to reader Daniel Lo for calling to our attention this pair of headlines, both on articles by Jaxon Van Derbeken in the San Francisco Chronicle: “S.F. Dog Killer Avoids Three-Strikes Sentence”, June 2 (Joey Trimm faced possible 25 years to life under “three strikes” law for fatal beating of puppy, but prosecutors relented and he was sentenced to only five years); “Man Gets Five Years In Killing of Gay in S.F.”, April 25 (“high-profile” homicide charges against Edgard Mora, whom prosecutors had “long labeled a hate-filled murderer”, resolved with five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.)

June 21 – And don’t say “I’m sorry”. “Be careful,” said the night nurse. “They’re suing the hospital.” First-person account of how it changes the atmosphere on the floor when the family of a patient still under care decides to go the litigation route. Highly recommended (Lisa Ochs, “In the shadow of a glass mountain”, Salon, June 19).

June 21 – Good news out of Washington…. The House voted Monday to curb the use of funds by agencies other than Justice to pursue the federal tobacco lawsuit. The Clinton Administration claims the result would be to kill the suit (let’s hope so), but it and other litigation advocates will be working to restore the money at later stages of the appropriations process, and the good guys won by a margin of only 207-197 (June 19: Reuters; Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP; Washington Post) (It soon reversed itself and restored the funds: see June 26).

June 21 – …bad news out of New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has joined the ranks of gun control advocates willing to employ the brute force of litigation as an end run around democracy. “[F]ollowing the lead of many of the nation’s other large cities, [Giuliani] announced yesterday that his administration would file its own lawsuit against handgun manufacturers, seeking tens of millions of dollars to compensate New York City for injuries and other damage caused by illegal gun use.” Maybe he wouldn’t have made such a good Senator after all (Eric Lipton, “Giuliani Joins the War on Handgun Manufacturers”, New York Times, June 20).

June 21 – Stress of listening to clients’ problems. Dateline Sydney, Australia: “A court awarded [U.S.] $15,600 in damages to a masseuse who suffered depression after listening to clients talk about their problems. Carol Vanderpoel, 52, sued the Blue Mountains Women’s Health Center, at Katoomba, west of Sydney, claiming she was forced to deal with emotionally disturbed clients without training as a counselor or debriefing to cope with resultant stress.” (“Singing the Blues: Masseuse wins damages for listening to problems”, AP/Fox News, June 20; Anthony Peterson, “$26,000 the price of earbashing”, Adelaide Advertiser, June 20).