November 30 — Class-action fee control: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. A panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that judges have a positive duty to scrutinize and, where appropriate, reduce attorneys’ fees in class actions, independently of whether anyone with appropriate standing raises an objection. The case arose after a Los Angeles federal district judge approved nearly $3 million in legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm of Weiss & Yourman in a shareholder class action against Occidental Petroleum, which had cut its dividend in alleged breach of an earlier promise not to do that. The case was settled by Occidental’s agreement to maintain more lucrative dividend payouts in the future and pay legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm; no cash recovery was had by shareholders.
Noted class-action objector Lawrence Schonbrun then appeared on behalf of a class member to challenge the fee payout as excessive; his arguments proved sufficiently persuasive that the judge eventually cut Weiss & Yourman’s fee by more than half, to $1.15 million. The law firm appealed, arguing that because its fee was the result of a separate side-deal with Occidental, rather than being deducted from a payout to the class, an individual class member (such as Schonbrun’s client) had no standing to object. This line of argument has been routinely offered in defense of “separately negotiated fee” class-action settlements, and it has a remarkable implication, namely that once the two sides’ lawyers have cut their deal behind closed doors, no one in the client class has any right to raise an objection to the fees obtained for representing them. Fees for representing a class, yet with no worry that anyone in the class will be able to bring a challenge to those fees — why, it’s like magic!
A little too magical for the Ninth Circuit: a “client whose attorney accepts payment, without his consent, from the defendants he is suing, may have a remedy,” wrote Judge Andrew Kleinfeld last month on behalf of a unanimous panel that also included Judge Alex Kozinski and Oregon district judge Owen Panner, sitting by designation. “The absence of individual clients controlling the litigation for their own benefit creates opportunities for collusive arrangements in which defendants can pay the attorneys for the plaintiff classes enough money to induce them to settle the class action for too little benefit to the class”. That’s where “the supervisory power of the district court” should come in, as “a mechanism for assuring loyal performance of the attorneys’ fiduciary duty to the class.” (Paul Elias, “$2 Million Fee Reduction Stands in Securities Case”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 20 — full story).
November 30 — Leave that mildew alone. It’s illegal to market “mildew-proof” paint for bathrooms and damp basements unless you go through the (extremely expensive) process of registering the paint as a pesticide, claims the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking $82,500 in penalties from William Zinsser & Co., Inc., a Somerset, N.J.-based paint manufacturer. (EPA Region 2 press release, Nov. 10).
November 30 — Update: sued columnist still disrespecting local attorneys. As reported earlier in this space, Swansea, Ill. lawyers Judy Cates and Steven Katz have filed a lawsuit demanding $1 million from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan after a column in which he criticized their handling of a class-action suit against Publisher’s Clearing House and jocularly compared them to the James Gang of bank robbers (see Nov. 4 commentary). You’d think McClellan would have learned his lesson by now, especially with the case still pending, but no, he’s had the temerity to write another column criticizing the same lawyers, this time pointing out that numerous state attorneys general have intervened to fault their proposed settlement of the magazine-subscription suit. (“Regardless of suit result, my lawyers will have work”, Nov. 21 — full column)
November 29 — New subpage: Our overlawyered schools. Compiling news clips and commentaries on the legal headaches that beset teachers, students, principals, faculty and university administrators. Highlights include our ever-popular Annals of Zero Tolerance, special ed and the ADA, Title IX (From Outer Space), the role of litigiousness in undermining supervised recreation, the paralytic contribution of tenure laws, and other trends that tend toward the merger of schoolhouse, courthouse and madhouse.
November 29 — “Some lawyers try to make nice”. “Soon after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the personal-injury lawyers at R. Jack Clapp and Associates marshaled their resources and mobilized their forces. Faster than you can say class-action lawsuit, the Washington, D.C., firm, which specializes in aviation disasters, launched EgyptAir990.com — a Web site that at first blush appears primarily concerned with helping the bereaved deal with loss, but on closer examination is all about financial gain.” New York Times writer David Wallis devotes a “Week in Review” roundup to the legal profession’s efforts to repair its “sorry” image, lately impaired “by tacky late-night commercials for ambulance chasers; the legal lobby’s opposition to tort reform; and the one-two punch of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
The Ohio Bar, meanwhile, has sponsored a TV spot in which two children explain at school what their parent does for a living: one says his father “protects people”, like a police officer, and another says her mom “helps sick and hurt people”, like a doctor. It turns out that they’re . . . lawyers. So what is it that the opposing side’s lawyers do for a living? (David Wallis, “Some Lawyers Try To Make Nice”, New York Times, Nov. 28 — full story)(free, but registration required).
November 29 — “Wretched excesses of liability lawsuits”. Op-ed by the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s David Boldt looks at “the ever-expanding litigation explosion” by way of some recent automotive cases, including the class action against DaimlerChrysler that recently resulted in a countersuit by the company (see November 12 commentary). On this summer’s Chevy Malibu verdict in Los Angeles, in which a jury voted $4.8 billion against General Motors, later reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion, Boldt offers a point of comparison we hadn’t previously seen: “The impact [of the Chevy’s 70 mph rear-ending by a drunk driver] was the equivalent of dropping the car from the top of a 16-story building.”
Many accept the idea that the litigation boom offers compensating benefits — for example, “that our lives are made safer by the system because it makes companies more careful. Interestingly, there is no known evidence for this.” Boldt cites the Brookings Institution’s study “The Liability Maze” of eight years ago. “The editors — Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute and Robert Litan of Brookings — wrote that none of the authors had found a demonstrable improvement in safety for Americans compared with nations that have less stringent liability-law systems. Nor did the authors find that the increase in liability suits had accelerated a decline in U.S. accident rates. I can find no subsequent study that has contradicted these conclusions.” (David Boldt, “We all end up paying for a litigious society”, reprinted in Baltimore Sun, Nov. 24).
November 26-28 — Oh, well, better luck next time. Illinois courts reviewing capital sentences “have repeatedly expressed dismay at the representation received by Death Row inmates at trial,” and this Chicago Tribune investigation brings to light a sad array of ways lawyers can drop the ball at a time when clients need their help most: missing deadlines, failing to develop exculpatory evidence, alienating judges, neglecting to disclose conflicts of interest, and much more. “Since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977 . . . 33 defendants sentenced to death were represented at trial by an attorney who had been, or was later, disbarred or suspended — disciplinary sanctions reserved for conduct so incompetent, unethical or even criminal that the state believes an attorney’s license should be taken away.” If lawyers can perform this sloppily even when a client’s life is at stake, what must they be getting away with in lesser cases? (Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills, “Inept Defenses Cloud Verdicts”, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 15).
November 26-28 — Beware of market crashes. “Online brokerages are ‘probably’ financially responsible for computer outages that leave their customers unable to trade,” Securities and Exchange Commission Arthur Levitt said this week. Executives at online trading firms, reports the New York Post‘s Jesse Angelo, “are terrified of lawsuits from customers claiming they lost money due to computer glitches. E*Trade has already been slapped with such a suit by an Ohio woman who attributes $40,000 in losses to computer problems at the online trading site. The suit seeks class-action status”. (Jesse Angelo, “Levitt: Web Brokers May Be on the Hook for Computer Crash”, New York Post, Nov. 23).
November 26-28 — Update: cannon shot OK. Administrators at Nevis High School in Minnesota have relented and agreed to permit a yearbook photo of Army enlistee Samantha Jones perched on a cannon draped with a U.S. flag, despite a policy of “zero tolerance” of depictions of weapons (see Oct. 30-31 commentary). “More than 100 students walked out of class Nov. 3 to protest the ban on the photo, leading to 50 suspensions,” AP reports. (“Fight over yearbook photo ends”, AP/Washington Post, Nov. 25 (link now dead)).
November 26-28 — Weekend reading: evergreens. Pixels to take to the mall or to peruse while resting off the big meal:
* Out-of-state defendants sued for more than $75,000 in a state court should be able to choose removal of the suit to a U.S. district court with its greater objectivity between local and nonlocal litigants, argues Phelps Dunbar partner Michael Wallace in one of the more promising proposals for liability reform we’ve heard in a while (Michael Wallace, “A Modest Proposal for Tort Reform“, from vol. 1, issue 3 of Federalist Society Litigation Working Group newsletter; at Federalist Society website).
* How to tell you’ve been the victim of a staged car accident: tips from a local CBS-TV affiliate’s story on “Los Angeles’ most unlucky driver” (you’re driving alone in a newer car, someone in one vehicle distracts your attention, a second older car with several passengers gets in front of you and suddenly slams brakes, none of the alleged victims carry photo IDs) and from investigator Jack Murray’s book on the subject (the incident occurred midblock, not in rush hour and with no eyewitnesses, struck vehicle “has had tire pressure in the rear tires lowered (causes more taillight damage and stops more quickly)”. (“Special Assignment: Staged Accidents“, Channel2000.com, March 28, 1998; Jack Murray, “Red flags: a 14 point checklist“, not dated, National Association of Investigative Specialists website).
* “Procedures And Rules Regarding Suits Against Public Entities” — well, okay, it’s a dry title for an undeniably dry outline of the steps involved in extracting money from City Hall, but you’ve got to admit it bears an interesting byline: Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., whose success in litigating personal-injury cases both preceded and followed his better-known role in assisting O.J. Simpson to walk free of murder charges (website of California law firm Kiesel, Boucher and Larson LLP — full paper, undated).
November 24-25 — Don’t redeem that coupon! Under the heading, “Free money for doing nothing”, financial commentator Andrew Tobias writes, “If you’ve ever owned a Toshiba laptop — I’ve owned two — apparently you’re in line for $200-$400 because Toshiba has to pay us $2 billion because . . . well, because . . . I’m actually not going to claim my prize, because it doesn’t feel right. But, as noted over on overlawyered.com, it makes an interesting story.” (AndrewTobias.com, Nov. 24). Our coverage of the Toshiba laptop settlement ran Nov. 3, Nov. 5, Nov. 17 and Nov. 23.
November 24-25 — From our mail sack: memoir of a morsel. We’ve generally refrained from publishing on this site the many letters people send us describing their horrible personal experiences in court. Just this once, we’re going to break that rule and run this one from Paul Boyce of Tustin, Calif.:
“I am a small businessman, owner of a 3-employee business helping companies with their carpool programs (one of those employees is my wife). We were sued by an employee for wrongful termination 5 years ago, at a time when we had six employees. She had been working for me for only 6 months when I let her go. We went into binding arbitration, supposedly a low cost alternative to a jury trial. I lost. With penalties and interest, the judgment came to over $240,000. In 1998, I filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy — there was no way I could pay that much! In fact, business revenues were down to 1/5 of what they were when she sued me. Last year I earned $60,000. My lawyer’s fees came to $55,000.
“In the bankruptcy, the only asset we had was our small-business retirement plan savings, amounting to about $350,000. What was astonishing was that the judge said that because my wife and I are in our mid 40s, we didn’t need the $350,000 — we could easily make it up! He based this on tables showing how long we could be expected to live versus how much we could be expected to make at hypothetical government jobs. So he ordered our retirement plan be handed over to the contingency fee lawyers to be split up. We’ve asked around and the best we can tell, the employee who sued us 5 years ago will get maybe $35,000 for her efforts. We counted a total of 4 contingency fee lawyers on her side.
“The result of all this is that I’ve decided to close the office and lay off my only employee. It’s just a lot easier and less risky to run the business out of our home.
“The legal system, with its strong preference for feeding the lawyers at the expense of morsels like me, shows me how far astray from the constitution our great country has strayed. It’s a parody of what the founding fathers had in mind when they clearly expressed their historic vision. Today, it’s all about the lawyers and how clever they are at shifting even more wealth their way.”
Paul and Sandy Boyce can be reached at Commuter Services Group, Tustin, CA.
November 24-25 — CNN “Moneyline”. Watch for our editor as a likely guest on this evening’s (Wed., Nov. 24) CNN Moneyline, discussing the continuing lawsuit boom.
November 23 — Class actions vs. high tech. “It had to happen: America’s most successful industry, high technology, is under sustained assault from America’s second-most successful industry, litigation.” The editor of this website has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, tackling the Microsoft and Toshiba class actions. (Walter Olson, “A Microsoft Suit with a Sure Winner”, New York Times, Nov. 23).
November 23 — Soros as bully. Add another prominent name to the list of philanthropists (see September 2 commentary) bankrolling the lawsuits that are fast driving family-owned gunmakers into bankruptcy: wealthy financier George Soros, who according to a Wall Street Journal report last month has donated $300,000 to keep the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek litigation going and also provided financing for the NAACP’s suit against gunmakers. (Paul M. Barrett, “Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21)
November 23 — Update: too obnoxious to practice law. The Nebraska Supreme Court has now heard the case of Paul Converse, who wants to become a lawyer though the state bar commission says he’s behaved in an “abusive, disruptive, hostile, intemperate, intimidating, irresponsible, threatening or turbulent” manner in the past (see Oct. 13 commentary). Last week the court agreed that Converse “seeks to resolve disputes not in a peaceful manner, but by personally attacking those who oppose him in any way and then resorting to arenas outside the field of law to publicly humiliate and intimidate those opponents.” Notwithstanding these high qualifications to practice in certain fields of American law, it turned down his application. They sure do things differently out in Cornhusker land (Leslie Reed, “Court: Law Grad Unfit for Nebraska Bar”, Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 20, link now dead)
November 23 — Get off my jury. “To win a decent verdict, Mr. Rogers [Chicago attorney Larry R. Rogers, Sr., who won $10.4 million for a client after a serious traffic accident] had to select the right jury…He never wants people from the banking industry, accountants and people in investment professions on his juries: ‘These people tend to think about the power of money, that if you give someone $100,000 and they invest it, it will earn something. They won’t give you full compensation for the injury.’ He was also sensitive to keeping off jurors who are anti-lawsuit: ‘I ask them is there anything they’ve heard in the media, in newspapers, about tort reform.’ …’They liked [his client], and juries tend to award damages to people they like.” (“Proving worth isn’t age-related” (profile of Larry R. Rogers Sr.), National Law Journal, Oct. 4.)
November 22 — From the planet Litigation. Courtroom jousting continues between a group that calls itself Citizens Against UFO Secrecy and the U.S. Department of Defense over CAUS’s charges that DoD has covered up incidents of possible intrusion by extraterrestrial spacecraft. CAUS has sued the government a half-dozen times over its alleged unresponsiveness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding UFO sightings; on September 1 it added a complaint that the government has fallen short of its responsibilities under Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution to defend the nation’s territory against foreign invasion. CAUS executive director Peter Gersten filed the action in his home state of Arizona, which “is definitely a targeted area for the clandestine intruders,” and is contemplating follow-on suits in New York and California. “I can prove in a court of law, and beyond a reasonable doubt, that we are in contact with another form of intelligence,” he says. CAUS’s site reprints affidavits, motions and other documents from the case, including illustrations of UFO sightings in Corpus Christi, Tex., Pahrump, Nev. (link now dead), and Seattle. (Robert Scott Martin, “CAUS Sues U.S. Over Secrecy”, Space.com, Sept. 1, link now dead; CAUS Sept. 1 press release.)
In a separate action, UFO researcher Larry Bryant of Alexandria, Va., who’s served as CAUS’s Washington, D.C. coordinator, has prepared a petition charging Virginia authorities with shirking their constitutional obligation to safeguard citizens from invasion by foreign powers. Bryant says Virginia governor James Gilmore III “knows that it’s against the law to abduct, torture, falsely imprison, wantonly impregnate and unconsensually surgically alter (via implants) a person. He also knows that he has the power to repel these invasive activities of apparently alien-originated UFO encounters.” Described by Space.com as a retired writer and editor of military publications, Bryant “takes pride in having ‘filed more UFO-related lawsuits in federal court than has anyone else in the entire universe.'” (Robert Scott Martin, “UFO Invasion Outcry Spreads to Virginia”, Space.com, Sept. 10, link now dead.)
CAUS’s Gersten has also described as “gratuitously demeaning”, probably “defamatory” and “actionable” an ad for Winston cigarettes this summer which made fun of alien-abduction believers, but declined to pursue legal action against the cigarettes’ maker, R.J. Reynolds. (“Cigarette Ad Sparks UFO Controversy”, Space.com, Sept. 28; “UFO Lawyer Unlikely To Sue Tobacco Company over Ad”, Oct. 1, links now dead).
November 22 —Vice President gets an earful. “One employee summed up the anguish over the case, saying, ‘when I read what the government says about Microsoft, I don’t recognize the company I work for.’ Another bitterly complained that the many subpoenas of Microsoft e-mail had invaded employees’ privacy more than any government wiretap, ‘so that sharp lawyers can cut and snip bits of e-mail to construct whatever story they want’ in court. ‘We bugged ourselves’.” John R. Wilke, “Gore, Addressing Microsoft Staff, Defends Nation’s Antitrust Laws”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16).
The New York Times is reporting that class-action lawyers on the West Coast will sue Microsoft as early as today on behalf of a class of California end-users of Windows 95 and 98. The suit, which will ask treble damages for alleged overcharges, will be filed on behalf of a statewide rather than nationwide class because the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 Illinois Brick decision disallows federal antitrust actions on behalf of indirect purchasers of goods (most Windows users buy it preloaded on their machines, rather than direct from Microsoft). However, 18 states including California and New York have enacted statewide laws allowing such suits. (Steve Lohr, “Microsoft Faces a Class Action on ‘Monopoly'”, New York Times, Nov. 22 — free, but registration required).
November 22 — Great moments in zoning law. Officials in Millstone, N.J. have issued a summons to Lorraine Zdeb, a professional pet-sitter who took in nearly 100 animals from neighbors, clients and strangers to save them from the flooding of Tropical Storm Floyd, charging her with operating a temporary animal shelter in a residential neighborhood. (“Somerset County woman charged for taking in animals during storm”, AP/CNN, Nov. 20, link now dead).
November 22 — Repetitive motion injury Hall of Fame. Delicacy prevents us from describing exactly how this Fort Lauderdale, Fla. woman acquired carpal tunnel syndrome in the course of providing paid telephone companionship for lonely gentlemen, but it did not prevent her from applying for workers’ compensation benefits for which she obtained a “minimal settlement” this month. (Reuters/ABC News, Nov. 19, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Annals of zero tolerance: the fateful thumb. MeShelle Locke’s problems at North Thurston High School near Tacoma, Washington began Nov. 5 when she pointed her finger and thumb at a classmate in the shape of a gun and said “bang”. Asked if that was a threat, she saucily quoted a line from the 1992 movie “The Buttercream Gang”: “No, it’s a promise.” Before long, she was hauled up on charges of having threatened violence, drawing a four-day suspension and a disciplinary record that may affect her chances of getting into a competitive college.
A budding writer whose work appeared in the high-selling anthology Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul, and who says she’d never been in trouble with the school before, MeShelle might seem an unlikely source of menace, but school officials told her father that his daughter “fit the profile” of a potentially dangerous student: “For example, she often eats lunch alone or in a small group.” (Karen Hucks, “Gunlike gesture results in suspension”, Tacoma News-Tribune, Nov. 13; “School is no place for ‘bang-bang’ jokes”, Nov. 16, links now dead)
November 20-21 — From the evergreen file: L.A. probate horror. Wealthy art collector Fred Weisman was lucky he didn’t live to see the proceedings in a Santa Monica courthouse after his death “as his will and his estate are picked apart like a slab of pork thrown to buzzards.” (Jill Stewart, “Shredded Fred”, New Times L.A., Nov. 19, 1998, link now dead).
November 20-21 — No, honey, nothing special happened today. In early 1997 Denise Rossi startled her husband by announcing that she wanted a divorce. In the ensuing legal proceedings she forgot to mention — it just slipped her mind! — that eleven days before filing she’d happened to win the California lottery for $1.3 million. Two years later, her husband learned the truth when a misdirected Dear-Lottery-Winner letter arrived offering to turn his ex-wife’s winnings into ready cash. And this Monday a judge ruled that she’d have to hand it all over to her ex-husband, as a penalty for committing a fraud on him and on the court. She has since filed for bankruptcy proteciton. (Ann O’Neill, L.A. Times, reprinted in San Jose Mercury News, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Judge to lawyers in Miami gun suit: you’re trying to ban ’em, right? “If you were to get exactly what you wanted, they’d be taken off the market entirely,” Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean told lawyers representing Dade County in its recoupment lawsuit against major gunmakers, by way of clarifying their position. (Jane Sutton, “Miami Gun Suit Could Take Firearms Off Market”, Reuters (link now dead), Nov. 16). Last month attorney John Coale, a spokesman for the municipal suits, “dismissed claims that the lawsuits could ever shut down the entire handgun industry. ‘It can’t be done, and it’s not a motive, because as long as lawful citizens want to buy handguns, and as long as the market’s there, there’s going to be someone filling it,’ Coale said.” (Hans H. Chen, “Colt’s Handgun Plan Heats Up Debate”, APBNews.com, Oct. 11) (see Oct. 12 commentary).
Dade County-Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, quoted in the new Reuters report, seemed to view the anti-democratic nature of the county’s lawsuit almost as a point in its favor: he “said he was using the courts in an attempt to crack down on the gun industry because the Florida legislature refused to do so. ‘Every year that I’ve gone to the legislature we have basically been told to take our case elsewhere,’ he said.” Much the same sentiment was expressed last month by Elisa Barnes, the chief lawyer behind the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek lawsuit in Brooklyn, N.Y. against gunmakers: “‘You don’t need a legislative majority to file a lawsuit,’ says Ms. Barnes.”” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21 (requires online subscription))
November 20-21 — National Anxiety Center “Favorite Web Sites of the Week”. “I recommend a visit to www.overlawyered.com where you can get tons of data regarding how trial lawyers are destroying this nation out of nothing more than greed, greed, and greed. This excellent site will help you understand what’s happening to Microsoft, to the tobacco industry, the gun manufacturers, and much more.” — “Warning Signs”, the weekly commentary of Alan Caruba’s National Anxiety Center, for Nov. 19. Unabashedly conservative, Mr. Caruba’s popular site specializes in refuting environmental scares in outspoken style.
November 20-21 — 100,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. We’d have hit this milestone earlier but our counter went on the fritz for a few days…thanks for your support!
November 18-19 — Worse than Y2K? “If the EPA succeeds in forcing a shutdown of the 17 coal-fired power generating plants it claims are illegally polluting,” editorializes the Indianapolis Star regarding the Clinton Administration’s recently filed lawsuit, “chances are very good the Midwest will experience major brownouts and rolling power outages on the next hot summer day.” Moreover, the “lawsuits were filed without warning [Nov. 3] by the Justice Department on behalf of the EPA. It was, quite simply, an unprecedented sneak attack on the electrical power industry” — yet one to which private environmental groups may have been tipped off in advance, given how ready they were to fire off a flurry of supportive press releases. EPA administrator Carol Browner and Janet Reno’s Justice Department now contend that utilities disguised expansions and upgrades of the grandfathered plants as routine maintenance, but a Chicago Tribune editorial says the modernizations were carried out with “the knowledge of federal environmental inspectors” whose superiors are now seeking to change the game’s rules after many innings have been played. If a looming Y2K glitch threatened to shut down a large share of the electric capacity of the Midwest and South, there’d be widespread alarm; when aggressive lawyering threatens to do so, few seem to care. (“EPA sneak attack”, editorial, Indianapolis Star, Nov. 5, link now dead; “A costly U-turn by the federal EPA”, editorial, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13).
November 18-19 — Golf ball class action. Golf Digest is “disgusted” over a class-action suit that lawyers filed against the Acushnet Company because, after running out of a promotional glove sent free to customers of Pinnacle golf balls, it sent the remaining customers a free sleeve of golf balls instead. Fraud! Deception! Shock-horror! “In the end, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were awarded as much as $100,000 in fees for their heroic efforts, [Allen] Riebman and [Lawrence] Bober (as the two named plaintiffs) themselves received payments of $2,500 apiece, and everyone else received what the lawsuit claimed was unacceptable in the first place: another free sleeve of Pinnacles. That’s justice at work.” (“The Bunker”, Golf Digest, October 1 — link now dead)
November 18-19 — Skittish Colt. According to Colt Manufacturing, the historic American gunmaker battered by the trial lawyers’ onslaught, Newsweek got some things wrong in its report last month, which was summarized in this space Oct. 12 (see also Nov. 9 commentary). Colt denies that its dropping of various handgun lines constitutes an exit from the consumer market, and says “it will continue its most popular models, such as the single-action revolver called the Cowboy and the O Model .45-caliber automatics.” It gave a number for layoffs of 120-200 rather than 300, and suggested that the lines would have been dropped at some point even without the litigation pressure. (Robin Stansbury, “Arms Reduction at Colt’s”, Hartford Courant, Oct. 13, reprinted at Colt site). A statement by the company did not, however, dispute a quote attributed to an executive in the original reports: “It’s extremely painful when you have to withdraw from a business for irrational reasons.”
According to Paul M. Barrett in the Oct. 21 Wall Street Journal, Colt’s legal bills for defending the suits “are expected to reach a total of about $3 million in 1999 alone. Insurance will cover two-thirds of that, says [New Colt Holdings chairman Donald] Zilkha, but the remaining $1 million is a significant hit for a still-struggling company that expects to have net income of only about $2 million this year.” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21). Update: for a closer look at Colt, see Matt Bai, “Unmaking a Gunmaker”, Newsweek, April 17, 2000.
November 18-19 — Law-firm bill padding? Say it isn’t so! Law professor Lisa Lerman of Catholic University in D.C. thinks lots and lots of overbilling goes on, even at big-name firms. “There’s a complete disconnect between the occurrence of misconduct and the rate of discipline,” she says. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Overbilling Is a Big-Firm Problem Too”, National Law Journal, Oct. 4). One of Lerman’s case histories, if accurate, indicates systematic malfeasance in the methods by which an unnamed Eastern law firm generated time sheets to submit to its insurance-company clients. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Welcome to Moral Wasteland LLC”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).
November 18-19 — A lovable liability risk. Zoe, a golden retriever who for the past two years has accompanied Principal Jill Spanheimer at her office at West Broad Elementary School, and has made friends with practically all the kids over that time, has been banished by an administrative order of the Columbus, Ohio public schools. The school system’s letter to Ms. Spanheimer “cited ‘possible allergic reactions,’ ‘liability issues’ and ‘an uncomfortableness of some students and staff’ as reasons Zoe was expelled.” See if your heart doesn’t melt at the picture (Julie R. Bailey, “Principal’s dog expelled from elementary school”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 11). On Tuesday the board agreed to review the policy (Bill Bush, “Policy on animals in schools becomes pet project for board”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 17).
November 18-19 — Aetna chairman disrespects Scruggs. No love lost, clearly, between Richard Huber, chairman of Aetna, and Mississippi tobacco-fee tycoon Richard Scruggs, prominent in the much-hyped legal assault on managed care. Scroll down about halfway through this interview to find the bracketed “Editor’s Note” where the interviewer asks the chairman of the nation’s largest health insurer whether it was “by intention or mistake” that he’d consistently misreferred to Mr. Scruggs’ surname as “Slugs”. Knock it off, kids (MCO Executives Online, Oct. 27 — full interview).
November 18-19 — Welcome WTIC News Talk visitors (“Ray and Robin’s picks“). We’ve even got a few Hartford-related items for you: see the Colt and Aetna bits above, and this report summarizing an article from the Courant about how lawsuits are making it hard for towns around Connecticut to run playgrounds.
November 17 — “How I Hit The Class Action Jackpot”. “As the lucky co-owner of a Toshiba laptop computer, I should be tickled pink: I apparently qualify for a cash rebate of $309.90….And the beauty of it is that my Toshiba works just fine!….[S]o remote is the possibility that our laptop will ever seriously malfunction that I may not get around to downloading the free software ‘patch’ that Toshiba has provided as part of the settlement.” Don’t miss this scathing Stuart Taylor column on the mounting scandal of the $147.5-million (legal fees) laptop settlement. (National Journal, Nov. 15 — link now dead).
November 17 — Who needs communication? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission steps up its campaign of complaint-filing over employer rules requiring employees to use English on the job. Synchro-Start Products Inc. of suburban Chicago has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle one such agency complaint; native speakers of Polish and Spanish make up much of its 200-strong workforce, and the company said it adopted such a policy after the use of languages not understood by co-workers had led to miscommunication and morale problems. The EEOC, however, pursues what the National Law Journal terms a “presumed-guilty” approach toward employer rules of this sort, permitting narrowly drafted exceptions only when managers can muster “compelling business necessity”, as on health or safety grounds. Earlier this year, a California nursing home agreed to pay $52,500 in another such case. In some early cases, employers adopted English-only policies after fielding complaints from customers who felt they were being bantered about in their presence or that non-English-speaking customers were getting preferential service — a problem which, like that of co-worker morale, may not necessarily rise in Washington’s view to the level of “business necessity”. (“EEOC Settles ‘English Only’ Workplace Suit For $55,000”, DowJones.com newswire, Nov. 12; Darryl Van Duch, “English-Only Rules Land In Court”, National Law Journal, Oct. 26.)
November 17 — Microsoft roundup. A critic of the giant company explains, not without glee, why the findings of fact mean so much as a template for private lawsuits: “Before last Friday, telling a jury that Microsoft is an evil, predatory organization that drove you out of business was a long, protracted procedure of walking a jury, step by step, through a crash course of how a technology company works; the importance of core technologies and leveraging them into a larger space, the nature of operating systems and related licensing and agreements, how Microsoft was able to exploit its position in the marketplace; and why this means that the plaintiff’s company was hoodwinked and not simply outmaneuvered. Today, you just have to call the jury’s attention to the document which your, their, and Bill Gates’ tax dollars helped to prepare.” (Andy Ihnatko, “The Wicked Witch Is Seeking Positive Spin”, MacCentral Online, Nov. 9).
Also: why bungling by IBM (especially) and Apple helped clear the way for Redmond’s dominance (Jerry Pournelle, “Jerry’s take on the Microsoft decision: Wrong!”, Byte, Nov. 8). And a Gallup Poll shows the public viewing Bill Gates favorably by more than three to one, siding with Microsoft on the trial by a 12-point margin, and opposing breakup of the company by a solid majority — as if any of that will matter to the folks in Washington (Ted Bridis, “Despite court loss, Microsoft moving ahead in public opinion”, AP/SFGate Tech, Nov. 10).
November 16 — What a mess! New Overlawyered.com subpage on environmental law. Our latest topical page assembles commentaries and links on the slowest and most expensive method yet invented to clean up fouled industrial sites, pay due respect to irreplaceable natural wonders, and bring science to bear on distinguishing serious from trivial toxic risks — namely, turning everything over to lawyers at $325 an hour. Also included are commentaries on animal rights, including our ever-popular drunken-parrot, crushed-insect, rattlesnake-habitat and eagle-feather reports — though at some point the menagerie of legally protected critters will probably get its own page.
November 16 — Baleful blurbs. Under well-established First Amendment precedent, it’s still nearly impossible to prevail in lawsuits against book publishers alleging that their wares are false and misleading — that, e.g., the diet book didn’t really make the pounds melt away, the relationship book resulted in heartbreak rather than nuptials, the religion book led the reader into spiritual error, and the celebrity autobiography bore only a passing relationship to strict historical truth. Were it otherwise, whole categories of book might never appear on bookstore shelves in the first place for fear of liability, including not a few works of public policy interest, such as, for example, the writings of certain early enviro-alarmists who predicted famine and exhaustion of world nonrenewable resources by 1985.
However, a recent decision in a California court may represent a breakthrough for plaintiff’s lawyers who’ve long hoped to expand publisher liability for printed untruths. The “Beardstown Ladies” were a mid-1990s publishing phenomenon in the well-worn genre of commonsense investment advice: a group of grandmothers in a small Midwestern town whose investment club was widely reported to have achieved stellar annual returns. Eventually a reporter for Chicago magazine investigated and found the Ladies had inadvertently inflated their returns, which turned out to be not especially stellar. Disney, their publisher, sent correction slips to booksellers, and the Beardstown craze was soon but a memory. The San Francisco law firm of Bayer, August & Belote, however, went to court on behalf of a customer to say that Disney had behaved falsely and deceptively by not yanking the book or at least its cover, which repeated the discredited claims.
Last month, reversing a lower court’s ruling, the state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled that although First Amendment law concededly protected the contents of the book, its cover blurbs were entitled to no such protection — even though the blurbs were in fact quoted verbatim from the book’s text. “Because the state has a legitimate interest in regulating false commercial speech, we conclude that the statements, as alleged, are not entitled to First Amendment protection,” wrote Justice Herbert “Wes” Walker. The Association of American Publishers had filed an amicus brief warning that such a ruling would “impose an affirmative obligation on publishers to investigate independently and guarantee the accuracy of the contents of the books if those contents are repeated on book covers and promotional materials.” (Rinat Fried, “Panel: You Can Judge Book by Cover”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 29). (DISCUSS)
November 16 — ‘Bama bucks. Per financial disclosure reports, six plaintiff’s law firms “donated about $4 million last year to six candidates through the state Democratic Party and political action committees”, according to the pro-tort reform Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy. Tops was the firm of Jere Beasley of Montgomery, which gave “more than $1 million — $633,000 to the Democratic Party and $389,000 to two political action committees, Pro-Pac and Trial-Pac”. Other distributors of largesse included Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown of Mobile ($955,000), Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton of Birmingham ($636,000); Pittman, Hooks, Dutton & Hollis of Birmingham ($526,000); Morris, Haynes, Ingram & Hornsby of Alexander City ($476,000); and King, Warren & Ivey of Jasper ($250,000). The money went to four judicial candidates, of whom two won, and to losing candidates for attorney general and lieutenant goveror. (Stan Bailey, “Group: 6 law firms gave $4 million to Demos’ run”, Birmingham News, Nov. 10) (earlier coverage of Alabama tort politics: Aug. 26, Sept. 1).