May 2001 archives, part 1


May 10 – “Barbecue group sued over contest”. Jim Woodsmall of Jumpin’ Jim’s BBQ in Johnston, Ia., has sued the Kansas City Barbeque Society, charging that his business has suffered because the society has failed to award his barbecue recipe the stellar ratings he feels it deserved. The enthusiast group fails to follow impartial and uniform rules in its cook-offs, Woodsmall claims, which he thinks amounts to fraud and negligence. (Lindsey A. Henry, Des Moines Register, May 8).

May 10 – Fortune on Lemelson patents. We’ve run a couple of items on the amazing Jerome Lemelson patent operation (see Jan. 19, 2001 and August 28, 1999) and now Fortune weighs in with the best overview we’ve seen. Lemelson, who died in 1997, filed patents for hundreds of ideas and industrial processes which he said he had invented, and which underlay such familiar modern technologies as VCRs, fax machines, bar-code scanners, camcorders and automated warehouses. A mechanical genius? Well, at least a genius in figuring out the angles that could be worked with American patent law: by filing vague patents and then arranging to delay their issuance while amending their claims to adjust to later technological developments, Lemelson steered them into the path of unfolding technology, eventually securing bonanzas for his tireless litigation machine. Foreign-owned companies folded first because they were afraid of American juries, which helped give Lemelson the war chest needed to break the resistance of most of the big U.S.-based industries as well. $1.5 billion in royalties later, his estate continues to sue some 400 companies, with many more likely to be added in years to come. (Nicholas Varchaver, “The Patent King”, May 14).

May 10 – Prospect of $3 gas. One reason refinery disruptions lead to big spikes in the price of gasoline at the pump: environmental rules end up mandating a different blend of gas for each state, hampering efforts to ship supplies to where they’re most needed. (Ron Scherer, “50 reasons gasoline isn’t cheaper”, Christian Science Monitor, May 4; Ben Lieberman (Competitive Enterprise Institute), “Skyrocketing Ga$: What the Feds Can Do”, New York Post, April 23, reprinted at CEI site).

May 10 – Welcome Norwegian readers. We get discussed, and several of our recent news items summarized, on the “humor” section of Norway’s Spray Internet service (Bjørn Tore Øren, “For mange advokater”, May 8). Among other non-U.S. links which have brought us visitors: Australia’s legal-beat webzine, Justinian (“A journal with glamour — yet no friends”; more); Baker & Ballantyne, in the U.K.; the Virtual Law Library pages on media law compiled by Rosemary Pattenden at the University of East Anglia; and Sweden’s libertarian- leaning Contra.nu (“Har advokatkåren i USA för stort inflytande?” they ask of us)(more).

May 9 – Oklahoma forensics scandal. After serving fifteen years in prison on a 1986 rape conviction, Jeffrey Pierce was released Monday after new DNA evidence refuted testimony against him by a forensic specialist whose work is the subject of a growing furor. “From 1980 to 1993, Joyce Gilchrist was involved in roughly 3,000 cases as an Oklahoma City police laboratory scientist, often helping prosecutors win convictions by identifying suspects with hair, blood or carpet fibers taken from crime scenes.” Although peers, courts and professional organizations repeatedly questioned the competence and ethical integrity of her work, prosecutors asked few questions, perhaps because she was getting them a steady stream of positive IDs and jury verdicts in their favor. Now Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating has ordered an investigation of felony cases on which Gilchrist worked after an FBI report “found she had misidentified evidence or given improper courtroom testimony in at least five of eight cases the agency reviewed.” (Jim Yardley, “Flaws in Chemist’s Findings Free Man at Center of Inquiry”, New York Times, May 8; “Inquiry Focuses on Scientist Used by Prosecutors”, May 2)(reg)

May 9 – Not about the money. Foreign policy making on a contingency fee: “When attorneys agreed to champion the causes of American victims of terrorism in the Middle East, it wasn’t supposed to be about the money.” We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? “But the prospect of multimillion-dollar fees in what once seemed to be long-shot litigation against Iran has left lawyers fighting over fees in federal court in Washington, D.C. High principles of international law and justice aren’t at stake. It’s simply a matter of who gets paid.” (Jonathan Groner, “Anti-Terrorism Verdicts Spur Big Fee Fights”, Legal Times, April 18).

May 9 – Update: cookie lawsuit crumbles. Half-baked all along, and now dunked: a federal court in March dismissed a would-be class action lawsuit against web ad agency DoubleClick over its placing of “cookies” on web users’ hard drives. Other such suits remain pending (see also Feb. 2, 2000); this one was brought by Milberg Weiss’s Melvyn Weiss and by Bernstein, Litowitz (Michael A. Riccardi, “DoubleClick Can Keep Hand in Cookie Jar, Federal Judge Rules”, New York Law Journal, March 30).

May 8 – “Lawyers to Get $4.7 Million in Suit Against Iomega”. “Lawyers in a class action suit alleging defects in portable computer Zip disk drives will get the only cash payout, up to $4.7 million, in a proposed settlement with manufacturer Iomega Corp., according to the company’s Web site.” Rebates of between $5 and $40 will be offered to past customers who buy new Iomega products, while Milberg Weiss and three other law firms expect to split their fees in crisp greenbacks, not coupons, if a Delaware judge approves the settlement in June. (Yahoo/Reuters, April 12) (Rinaldi class action settlement notice, Iomega website).

May 8 – A definition (via Sony’s Morita and IBM’s Opel). “Litigious (li-TIJ-uhs) adjective: 1. Pertaining to litigation; 2. Eager to engage in lawsuits; 3. Inclined to disputes and arguments. [From Middle English, from Latin litigiosus from litigium, dispute.]

“‘My friend John Opel of IBM wrote an article a few years ago titled ‘Our Litigious Society,’ so I knew I was not alone in my view that lawyers and litigation have become severe handicaps to business, and sometimes worse.” — Sony co-founder Akio Morita (Wordsmith.org “A Word a Day” service, scroll to Jan. 26).

May 8 – “Halt cohabiting or no bail, judge tells defendants”. “A federal judge in Charlotte is using a 19th-century N.C. law banning fornication and adultery, telling defendants they won’t be freed on bond until they agree to get married, move out of the house or have their partner leave. U.S. Magistrate Judge Carl Horn won’t release a criminal defendant on bond knowing that he or she will break the law. And that includes North Carolina’s law against unmarried couples cohabiting, placed on the books in 1805.” (Eric Frazier and Gary L. Wright, Charlotte Observer, April 4) (see also May 18, 2000).

May 7 – Says cat attacked his dog; wants $1.5 million. “A San Marcos man has filed a $1.5 million claim against the city because a cat who lives in the Escondido Public Library allegedly attacked his dog.” Richard Espinosa says he was visiting the library on November 16 with his assistance dog Kimba, a 50-pound Labrador mix, when the feline, named L.C. or Library Cat because it’s allowed to live in the building, attacked the dog inflicting scratches and punctures. As for Espinosa, wouldn’t you know, he “was emotionally traumatized and suffers from flashbacks, terror, nightmares and other problems.” Four lawyers declined to take his case and he finally filed it himself. “The cat was apparently uninjured.” (Jonathan Heller, “Escondido gets $1.5 million claim; library cat allegedly assaulted dog”, San Diego Union-Tribune, May 4) (see letter to the editor from Espinosa, June 13).

May 7 – Judge throws out hog farm suit. As was reported a few months ago, a number of environmental groups aim to take a lesson from the tobacco affair by using mass lawsuit campaigns to pursue various goals which they haven’t been able to secure through the legislative and electoral process. To do this they’ve teamed up with tobacco-fee-engorged trial lawyers; the nascent alliance got lots of publicity in December with one of its first projects, suing Smithfield Farms for billions over the nuisance posed by large-scale hog farming, a project apparently masterminded by Florida trial lawyer Mike Papantonio (tobacco, asbestos, fen-phen) and with suits against chicken and livestock operations promised in later phases of the effort (see Dec. 7, 2000). Far less publicity has been accorded to Judge Donald W. Stephens’s ruling in March which threw out the first two lawsuits as having failed to state a legal claim against the large hog packer and raiser. (Appeal is expected.) Power scion Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is still on board with his headline-ready name to front for the lawyers in the press, but he doesn’t seem to have gone out of his way to call attention to the adverse ruling (“North Carolina judge dismisses lawsuits against hog producer”, AP/MSNBC, March 30; Scott Kilman, “Environmental groups target factory-style hog farm facilities”, Wall Street Journal/MSNBC, undated; Smithfield press release, March 29).

MORE: National Public Radio, “Living on Earth” with Steve Curwood and reporter Leda Hartman, week of Feb. 16; Water Keeper Alliance (Kennedy’s group), hog campaign homepage with list of lawyers (J. Michael Papantonio, Steven Echsner and Neil Overholtz, Levin, Papantonio, Pensacola, Fla.; Thomas Sobol, Jan Schlichtmann, Steven Fineman and Erik Shawn of Lieff, Cabraser, New York and Boston; F. Kenneth Bailey, Jr. and Herbert Schwartz of Williams Bailey, Houston; Howard F. Twiggs and Douglas B. Abrams of Twiggs, Abrams, (Raleigh, N.C.), Ken Suggs and Richard H. Middleton, Jr. of Suggs, Kelly & Middleton (Columbia, S.C.), Joe Whatley, Jr., Birmingham, Ala.; Kevin Madonna, Chatham, N.Y.; Stephen Weiss and Chris Seeger, New York; Charles Speer, Overland Park, Kan.; Hiram Eastland, Greenwood, Miss.) Compare “Conoco Could Face $500 Million Lawsuit Over Bayou Water Pollution Problems”, Solid Waste Digest: Southern Edition, March 2001 (page now removed, but GoogleCached) (Papantonio campaign in Pensacola).

May 7 – Website accessibility law hits the U.K. “Scottish companies were warned yesterday that they could face prosecution if their websites are not accessible to the disabled. Poorly-designed websites are often incompatible with Braille software.” (more) (yet more) (Pauline McInnes, “Firms warned on websites access”, The Scotsman, April 19).

May 4-6 – By reader acclaim: “Vegetarian sues McDonald’s over meaty fries”. Seattle attorney Harish Bharti wants hundreds of millions of dollars from the burger chain for its acknowledged policy of adding small amounts of beef flavoring to its french fries, which he says is deceptive toward vegetarian customers (ABCNews.com/ Reuters, May 3). Notable detail that hasn’t made it into American accounts of the case we’ve seen, but does appear in the Times of India: “When he is not practising law in Seattle, Bharti says he teaches at Gerry Spence’s exclusive College for Trial Lawyers in Wyoming”. Does this mean you can be a predator without being a carnivore? (“US Hindus take on McDonald’s over French fries”, Times of India, May 3) (see also Aug. 30, 1999).

May 4-6 – Mississippi’s forum-shopping capital. The little town of Fayette, Miss., reports the National Law Journal, is “ground zero for the largest legal attack on the pharmaceutical industry” in memory. Tens of thousands of plaintiffs are suing in the Fayette courthouse over claimed side effects from such drugs as fen-phen, Rezulin, and Propulsid, not because they’re local residents (most aren’t) but because the state’s unusually lax courtroom rules allow lawyers to bring them in from elsewhere to profit from the town’s unique brand of justice. The townspeople, nearly half of whom are below the poverty level and only half of whom graduated from high school, “have shown that they are willing to render huge compensatory and punitive damages awards”. Among other big-dollar outcomes, Houston plaintiff’s lawyer Mike Gallagher of Gallagher, Lewis, Serfin, Downey & Kim “helped win a $150 million compensatory damages verdict for five fen-phen plaintiffs in Jefferson County on Dec. 21, 1999. The jury deliberated for about two hours…” There’s just one judge in Fayette County to hear civil cases, Judge Lamar Pickard, whose handling of trials is bitterly complained of by out-of-town defendants. As for appeal, that route became less promising for defendants last November when plaintiff’s lawyers solidified their hold on the Mississippi Supreme Court by knocking off moderate incumbent Chief Justice Lenore Prather.

Lots of good details here, including how the Bankston Drug Store, on Main Street in Fayette since 1902, has the bad fortune to get named in nearly every suit because that tactic allows the lawyers to keep the case from being removed to federal court. Plaintiff’s lawyer Gallagher, who also played a prominent role in the breast implant affair, says criticism of the county’s jurors as easily played on by lawyers “‘sounds racist’, since the jury pool is predominantly black”. He also brushes off defendants’ complaints about forum-shopping with all the wit and sensibility at his command: “They want to tell me where I can sue them for the damage they caused? They can kiss my a**.” (Mark Ballard, “Mississippi becomes a mecca for tort suits”, National Law Journal, April 30).

May 4-6 – Agenda item for Ashcroft. Attorney General Ashcroft could make a real difference for beleaguered upstate New York communities by backing off the Justice Department’s Reno-era policy of avid support for revival of centuries-dormant Indian land claims, which went so far as to include the brutalist tactic of naming as defendants individual landowners whose family titles had lain undisturbed since the early days of the Republic (see Oct. 27, 1999, Feb. 1, 2000) (John Woods, “Long-Running Indian Land Claims in New York May Hinge on Ashcroft’s Stance”, New York Law Journal, April 16).

May 3 – “Family of shooting victim sue owners of Jewish day-care center”. If the gunman doesn’t succeed in wiping out your institution, maybe the lawyers will: “The parents of a boy who was shot by a white supremacist at a Jewish day-care center have filed a lawsuit claiming the center’s owners failed to provide the necessary security to prevent hate crime attacks.” Buford O. Furrow fired more than 70 shots at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, 1999 (AP/CNN, May 1).

May 3 – Update: mills of legal discipline. They grind slow, that’s for sure, but does that mean they grind exceeding fine? A disciplinary panel has ended its investigation of New Hampshire chief justice David Brock, letting him off with an admonishment, in the protracted controversy over the conduct (see April 5 and Oct. 11, 2000) which also led to his impeachment and acquittal in the state senate; Brock’s lawyer had threatened to sue the disciplinary panel if it continued its probe, and a dissenting committee member called that lawsuit-threat “intended to intimidate” (“Threat of lawsuit ended Brock case”, Nashua Telegraph, April 23; Dan Tuohy, “Finding bolsters call for reform”, Foster’s Daily Democrat, April 26). A hearing committee of the District of Columbia Board on Professional Responsibility has recommended that Mark Hager be suspended for three years over the episode [see Feb. 23, 2000] in which he and attorney John Traficonte “began negotiations with [drugmaker] Warner-Lambert to make refunds to consumers, and to pay himself and Hager $225,000 in exchange for which they would abandon their representation, agree to hold the agreement and fee secret from the public and their clients, and promise not to sue Warner-Lambert in the future. Traficonte and Hager accepted the offer without first obtaining the approval of any class member.” The disciplinary committee “found that Hager’s conduct was shockingly outrageous, and that his status as a law professor was a factor in aggravation.” We’ve seen no indication that anyone in the administration of American University’s law school, where Hager continues to teach, has expressed the smallest misgivings about the example that students are supposed to take from his conduct (Denise Ryan, law.com D.C., Board on Professional Responsibility No. 31-98, In re Hager, issued Nov. 30, 2000). (Update Jul. 19, 2003: Hager resigns AU post in April 2003). And off-the-wall Michigan tort lawyer and politician Geoffrey Fieger faces charges before the state attorney grievance commission following reports that he used his radio show to unleash “an obscenity-laced tirade” against three state appeals judges (“Fieger Under Fire For Alleged Swearing Fit”, MSNBC, April 17).

May 3 – “Valley doctors caught in ‘lawsuit war zone'”. A report from the Texas Board of Medical Examiners finds medical malpractice cases approximately tripled in 1999 in Texas’s McAllen-Brownsville region compared with the previous year. Among short-cuts lawyers are accused of employing: suing doctors without an authorization from the client, and hiring as their medical expert a family doctor who charges $500 an hour and has reviewed 700 cases for lawyers, second-guessing the work of such specialists as cardiovascular surgeons, but has not herself (according to an opposing lawyer) had hospital privileges since 1997. (James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, March 2 — via Houston CALA). State representative Juan Hinojosa has introduced a bill that would allow doctors and hospitals to countersue lawyers and clients who file suits with reckless disregard as to whether reasonable grounds exist for their action. (“Doctors seek new remedy to fight frivolous lawsuits”, CALA Houston, undated).

May 2 – Suing the coach. “A teenager, who felt she was destined for greatness as a softball player, has filed a $700,000 lawsuit against her former coach, alleging his ‘incorrect’ teaching style ruined her chances for an athletic scholarship. Cheryl Reeves, 19, of Rambler Lane in Levittown, also alleges that her personal pitching coach, Roy Jenderko, of Warminster, not only taught her an illegal style of pitching but also used ‘favorite players’ which resulted in demoralizing the teen. ” (Dave Sommers, “Legal Pitch”, The Trentonian, May 1).

May 2 – Trustbusters sans frontieres. Truly awful idea that surfaced in the press a while back: a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) say they’re trying to pressure the Bush administration to file an antitrust suit against the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, accusing it of restricting the output of oil in order to raise prices to consumers in countries like ours — which is, of course, OPEC’s reason for existence. “Most antitrust and foreign policy experts interviewed say they cannot imagine a scenario in which such legal action would succeed, or that any president would risk his foreign policy goals for such a lawsuit”, reports the National Law Journal. But even the gesture of inviting unelected judges and unpredictable juries to punish sovereign foreign powers would increase the chances of our landing in a series of confrontations and international incidents that would be at best imperfectly manageable by the nation’s executive branch and diplomatic corps (which cannot, for example, necessarily offer to reverse or suspend court decisions as a bargaining chip).

The United States’s relations with OPEC countries, it will be recalled, have on occasion embroiled us in actual shooting wars, which are bad enough when entered after deliberation on the initiative of those to whom such decisions are entrusted in our system of separation of powers, and would be all the less supportable if brought on us by the doings of some rambunctious judge or indignant jury. Wouldn’t it be simpler for Sen. Specter to just introduce a bill providing that the courts of the United States get to run the world from now on? (Matthew Morrissey, “Senators to Press for Suing OPEC Over Pricing”, National Law Journal, March 1).

May 1 – Columnist-fest. Scourings from our bookmark file:

* Mark Steyn on the Indian residential-school lawsuits that may soon bankrupt leading Canadian churches (see Aug. 23, 2000): (“I’ll give you ‘cultural genocide'”, National Post, April 9). Bonus: Steyn on protectionism, globalization and Quebec City (“Don’t fence me in”, April 19).

* Federalists under fire: there’s a press campaign under way to demonize the Federalist Society, the national organization for libertarian and conservative lawyers and law students. The Society has done a whole lot to advance national understanding of litigation abuses and overuse of the courts — could that be one reason it’s made so many powerful enemies? (Thomas Bray, “Life in the Vast Lane”, OpinionJournal.com, April 17; Marci Hamilton, “Opening Up the Law Schools: Why The Federalist Society Is Invaluable To Robust Debate”, FindLaw Writ, April 25; William Murchison, “In Defense of the Federalist Society”, Dallas Morning News, April 25).

* A Bush misstep: the White House has named drug-war advocate and Weekly Standard contributor John P. Walters as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Walters, almost alone among those who have spent serious professional time on drug abuse in America, harbors no misgivings over the fact that we’ve been crowding our prisons almost to the bursting point with nonviolent drug offenders.” (William Raspberry, “A Draco of Drugs”, Washington Post, April 30) (Lindesmith Center).

* “Overreaching IP legal teams kick the firm they supposedly represent”: Seth Shulman of Technology Review on the “patented peanut butter sandwich” case (see Jan. 30). (“Owning the Future: PB&J Patent Punch-up”, May). Also: California judge William W. Bedsworth (“Food Fight!”, The Recorder, March 16).

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