September 2001 archives, part 1


September 10 – “Group Sues Starbucks Over Tea Ingredient”. A newly formed group in Berkeley, Calif. by the name of Council for Education and Research on Toxics charges that the Tazo Chai tea sold by the Seattle-based coffee chain contains some quantity of ephedrine, a stimulant found in the Chinese herb ephedra or ma huang whose use poses hazards to health. (“Starbucks sued in LA court over alleged tea additive”, AP/KING-5 Seattle, Sept. 8; “Group Sues Starbucks Over Tea Ingredient”, Channel 2000, Sept. 6). Starbucks says that while it does not comment on litigation, “Starbucks and Tazo believe it is important to confirm for our customers that ephedrine has never been used as an ingredient in Tazo’s Chai Tea or any other Tazo product”. Lawyers have recently been making a big business suing over alleged health effects of ephedra consumed as a dietary supplement: searching on terms like ephedra and ma huang results in a bountiful harvest of lawyer advertising and client-recruitment pages. Ephedra has long been used in herbal teas and nutritional supplements, sometimes in trace quantities, other times in high dosages sought by dieters and athletes deliberately for its medicinal effects, which are related to those of phenylpropanolamine (PPA), a stimulant long ubiquitous in over-the-counter remedies until pulled off the market last fall (see April 6).

“The only purpose of the suit is to get Starbucks to get the ephedrine out of the product, not to get any money,” claims attorney Raphael Metzger, who filed the suit. While CERT is previously unknown, the same is not true of attorney Metzger, based in Long Beach, who runs a large “toxic-tort” practice whose website is publicizing the Starbucks action (leads to complaint in long PDF document). “The constitutional right of Californians to pursue and obtain safety could be an untapped source of riches that plaintiffs’ attorneys should consider on behalf of their clients and the public,” Metzger wrote a while back in the San Francisco Daily Journal regarding the prospect of tort claims based on the California Constitution’s “inalienable rights” provision. (Civil Justice Association of California “Balance”, Q4 1997 — scroll to “Deep Pocket Dreaming” near bottom).

September 10 – Japan sued for $1 trillion in reparations. We only thought there was a postwar treaty settling all claims against the Japanese — law prof Anthony D’Amato of Northwestern U. claims to have found a loophole that would let him reopen the whole thing. “I think we’re being conservative,” he says of his $1 trillion monetary demand. “This isn’t the first unusual legal action by D’Amato, who specializes in international law,” reports the Chicago Tribune. “In 1999 he filed suit seeking unsuccessfully to halt U.S. bombing of the former Yugoslavia to prevent damage to churches, shrines, monasteries and sacred relics.” (Matt O’Connor, “Suit seeks $1 trillion from Japan for war”, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 6 (reg); complaint in PDF format; “Japan sued for $1 trillion in reparations”, UPI/InfoSpace, Sept. 6).

September 10 – Employment class actions: EEOC to the rescue. For trial lawyers pressing job bias cases, the key to getting a big employer to offer a jumbo-sized settlement is to get the case certified as a class action on behalf of minority or female workers as a group: “Once it’s certified, it’s difficult for an employer to suck it up and go to trial. The [financial] risk is too high,” says management-side attorney C. Geoffrey Weirich of the Atlanta office of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. But if plaintiff’s lawyers are falling short on the certification issue they can get a second bite at the apple by persuading the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to intervene in the case; the EEOC is held to looser standards in class representation. “[S]howing up to bail out a plaintiffs’ lawyer who ran off the road doesn’t seem like a proper use of the process”, according to Fred Alvarez, a former EEOC commissioner who now represents employers at Palo Alto, Calif.’s Wilson Sonsini. Plaintiff’s lawyers counter that intervention on behalf of groups of workers is an intended part of the agency’s function and occurs only occasionally, despite a 1996 Forbes article in which an official of the EEOC’s Chicago office endorsed class actions as offering the agency “a much bigger bang for the buck”. (Mike McKee, “Employment Bar at War Over EEOC Intervention in Workplace Complaints”, The Recorder, Aug. 30). Sample case: Matt Gove, “Harris Teeter sued by black employees”, Atlanta Business Chronicle, Sept. 7.

September 7-9 – Judges overturning fewer huge verdicts. The litigation lobby is always insisting that alarm about excessive damage awards is misplaced because judges can be relied on to reduce or overturn anything really out of line. But is that so? A new survey by the National Law Journal of 100 jury awards exceeding $1 million dating back to 1997 that came under review by trial and appellate courts found that “the rate of outright reversal has fallen, and the bar has been raised considerably on what judges find offensive. “Federal and state judges are accepting numbers that would have been rejected as excessive only a few years ago,” notes the NLJ. “Jury awards that ‘used to make you gag and choke are being upheld,’ says defense counsel Frank Daily of Milwaukee’s Quarles & Brady.” Personal injury awards were least likely to be reversed, while large awards won by businesses against other businesses fared somewhat less well after trial. Somehow we doubt the folks at ATLA are going to be ringing their friends in the press about this one (Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Hard to Shock”, “After the Jurors Go Home”, National Law Journal, Aug. 29).

September 7-9 – Managed care bill: Do as we say…. Notable fact: “the Patients’ Bill of Rights just passed by the House exempts the 9 million federal workers, retirees and dependents covered by the federal health plan, including Congressional employees. … Tellingly, the House bill also exempts the 41 million people insured through Medicaid and the more than 50 million covered through Medicare and other federal programs from the potentially expensive new mandates and protections.” Proponents claim the new scope for litigation won’t drive up costs — but they sure don’t act as if they believe that (Ira Carnahan, “Do As We Say …”, Forbes, Sept. 3) (see also Dec. 6, 1999). And: “Liberals are right: a patients’ bill of rights is just a baby step. But it’s a step in the wrong direction,” expanding access to pricey experimental treatments for the middle class while pushing more poorer persons down into the ranks of the uninsured. (Noam Scheiber, “Daily Express: Stand Still”, The New Republic Online, July 13).

September 7-9 – Mosh pit mayhem. The mosh pit down front at the rock concert is a great place to get yourself injured (but you probably knew that). And it’s an equally great place for briefcase-toting lawyers to descend afterward filing “personal injury lawsuits with promoters, producers, arenas and sometimes even the musicians themselves as defendants”. Concert promoters say part of the crowd is always eager to enter the mosh area despite the known risks, but one plaintiff’s lawyer dismisses such talk: “The guy who controls the microphone controls the crowd,” he says. Among rock groups that have reached confidential settlements after being sued in such cases is the frenetically anti-capitalist group Rage Against the Machine, which distributes Noam Chomsky tracts to its fans. (Robert Wiener, “Rock And Roll Lawsuits”, LexisOne, July 31; Anthony DeBarros, “Injuries surge to high levels”, USA Today, Aug. 8, 2000).


September 6 – Red-light cameras. A San Diego judge has dismissed 300 traffic tickets issued under a system that “snaps a photo of a red-light runner and mails a $271 citation to the registered owner of the vehicle,” $70 of which is kept by a former Lockheed Martin subsidiary that operates the enforcement system. Such systems have already spread to fifty cities; critics charge that errors are common and very difficult for the motorist to fight, and that the company running the computerized cameras has no financial incentive to reduce the rate of erroneously issued tickets — quite the contrary, since it collects a share of the ill-gotten gains. According to Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), since red-light cameras became a major source of municipal revenue, many cities have significantly shortened the duration of yellow lights, a practice that profitably increases the number of violations for the cameras to catch but worsens the risk of traffic accidents themselves. It’s another wrinkle on the bad old practice of contingency-fee law enforcement — a sure recipe for injustice whether inflicted by public authorities, private contractors, or the two in combination. (“Judge Dismisses 300 Tickets Spawned by Red-Light Cameras, FoxNews.com, Sept. 5; Alex Roth, “Ex-worker says firm puts profits over safety; Man testifies that revenue is main purpose of red-light cameras at intersections”, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 6; Ray Huard and Alex Roth, “Doubt focuses on red-light cameras”, San Diego Union-Tribune, Aug. 17; RedLightLawyers.com; Eric Peters, “Rigging traffic lights hurts safety”, Detroit News, Aug. 12; OpinionJournal.com, “Big Brother’s Camera” (editorial), July 3) (see also Apr. 8-9, 2002).

September 6 – Judge Kent: another helping. A Philadelphia environmental litigator who asks to remain anonymous writes: “I love your stuff on Judge Kent [the Hon. Samuel Kent, federal judge, S.D. Texas; see Aug. 2, Aug. 3]. I have in my grubby lawyer hands a Judge Kent order dated June 7, 2001 (entered June 8, 2001) in Labor Force, Inc. v. Jacintoport Corp. & James McPherson, Civ. Action No. G-01-058 (opinion in PDF form courtesy Green Bag). In that opinion, the judge, among other things, calls the lawyer’s motion ‘obnoxiously ancient, boilerplate, [and] inane.’ He also refers to it as asinine. … No URL as yet, and I don’t think it’s on Westlaw.

“There are 38 uses of ‘asinine’ in the allfeds database in Westlaw. Judge Kent has the vast majority of them. Thank God I’m in PA and not Texas.” (Corrected Aug. 15, 2004: fixed earlier erroneous spelling of case name).

September 6 – Reparations talk. “Reparations, so popular a topic in black-radio discussions and in black newspapers, masquerade as a bonus check for being black. They are a Trojan horse full of devastating consequences for the future of black America. Reparations are a dangerous, evil idea that has to be derailed now before emotions and momentum take American race relations on a crash course”. (Juan Williams, “Get a Check? No, Thanks”, GQ/FrontPage, Sept.) East Indians, recently arrived, made themselves a power in small business and science “with organization and planning. They certainly didn’t do it with reparations checks. Blacks could have done it, if for years we hadn’t been following leaders whose motto should be ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.'” (Gregory Kane, “Slavery reparations no fix for ‘community in disarray'”, Baltimore Sun, Aug. 18). “Europe has indeed played a unique role in the history of slavery. Slavery has been a universal feature of all societies throughout most of history. … What makes Europe unique is that it ended slavery.” (Andrew Kenny, “White is Right”, The Spectator (UK), Aug. 25). And the King of Senegal has weighed in, pointing out that the guilt for slavery as an institution in his part of Africa long antedated Europeans’ arrival (Ellen Knickmeyer, “Senegal’s leader blasts idea of slave reparations”, AP/Nando, Aug. 29) (see Aug. 22 and links from there).

September 5 – “New law would stem abuses in Disabilities Act”. H.R. 914, the ADA Notification Act, is a bill introduced by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.); Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Haw.) is sponsoring a Senate counterpart. It would give businesses 90 days to make renovations to their facilities demanded under the Americans with Disabilities Act, thus putting a crimp (it’s hoped) in the complaint mills by which lawyers file accessibility complaints by the dozen and then collect legal fees from target businesses (see Jan. 26, 2000). (Hector Florin, Miami Herald, Aug. 31).

Among South Florida lawyers who have filed many near-identical complaints, collecting thousands of dollars per defendant in legal fees on settlement, are William Tucker and Lawrence McGuinness. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel notes, however, that “Tucker works out of a Fort Lauderdale building that has no disabled parking, a ramp steeper than the law allows, no landing and a door with a round doorknob. McGuinness’ office in Coral Gables has a curb with no ramp to the front door.” (Aug. 26). The same paper editorializes: “The Americans with Disabilities Act has been hijacked by trial lawyers who are using it to drum up legal fees.” (editorial, Aug. 28) (via OpinionJournal.comBest of the Web“).

September 5 – New York’s crazy homeless program. It’s the result of litigation by advocacy groups that have been tying the city in courtroom knots for years (Heather Mac Donald, “Forbidden Facts”, New York Post, Aug. 21).

September 5 – Target: trade associations. Two appeals courts in Washington state have upheld a verdict holding the National Spa and Pool Institute liable for $6.6 million in damages to a man who broke his neck diving into a below-ground pool and sued, saying the institute’s voluntary safety standards for pool design should have been stricter. “To protect its assets, the pool group was forced to file for bankruptcy (it’s now out of it) and sell off its $3 million (net income) trade show. Until this decision virtually all courts declined to extend product liability to associations that develop voluntary safety standards in good faith.” (Matthew Swibel, “On the Docket: In Hot Water”, Forbes, July 9 (reg)).

September 3-4 – “Lawsuit demands AOL stop anti-Islamic chat”. “A Muslim subscriber sued America Online yesterday, claiming that anti-Islamic insults in AOL’s chat rooms violate his civil rights. If successful, the suit could force the world’s largest Internet company to strictly limit what 30 million members can say in 14,000 chat rooms. … The suit alleges that by not kicking out the disrupters, AOL violated its contract with users. But it also claims that under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an AOL chat room is a ‘public accommodation,’ as is a restaurant or a hotel.” (Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe, Aug. 31; AP/Yahoo, Aug. 30; Leef Smith, “Suit Says AOL Permits Insults”, Washington Post, Aug. 31; BBC; Robyn Weisman, “AOL Stung by Hate Speech Lawsuit”, NewsFactor.com, Aug. 31) (& see Dec. 5-6).

September 3-4 – Not discriminatory to kick sleeping worker’s chair. A Pittsburgh federal jury has decided that it did not constitute race or sex discrimination for a supervisor to kick the chair of a sleeping 911 emergency dispatcher to wake her up. The supervisor had said that he had jostled the chairs of other workers who snoozed on the job. (“911 Boss Cleared In Woman’s Kicking Lawsuit”, WTAE/Yahoo, Aug. 28). And Great Britain’s Institute of Management has said that privacy provisions of that country’s newly enacted Human Rights Act may restrict an employer’s right to call its employees at home. “‘An employer does not have the right to demand an employee’s telephone number unless it is specified in the contract that the employee has a duty to be available outside normal working hours,’ the institute said. … The body also said employees are under no obligation to divulge their addresses except for the purpose of receiving ‘routine correspondence’ in connection with their job, such as salary slips.” (“Plagued by calls from the boss at home? Sue them”, Yahoo/Reuters, Aug. 24).

September 3-4 – Batch of reader letters. On topics such as Miniver Cheevy’s prospective wrongful-birth lawsuit, the next Cessna, slavery reparations, should doctors turn away lawyers as patients?; a 2-cent class action refund, and zero tolerance meets domestic violence. Also: we recommend a new book.