February 15 — County to pay “mountain man” burglar $412,500. Mincho Donchev, an escaped murderer from Bulgaria who lived for ten years in the Cascade Mountains of Washington breaking into vacation cabins, has won a $412,500 settlement of his lawsuit against Snohomish County for excessive force in his arrest. Two years ago, as Donchev resisted officers trying to subdue him, a police dog mangled his foot, causing the eventual loss of two of his toes; he was armed with knives, handguns and a pronged stick during the affair. The sheriff denies that either his deputies or the dog did anything wrong, but Donchev’s Seattle attorney, Mark Shepherd, said his client had “been horribly, grotesquely disfigured on his foot, and that foot will never function properly again”; the settlement money, he said, would help ease his client’s re-entry into society when he’s released from prison this August. Some local residents may have other ideas for where the money ought to go. “Every time he broke into our place he cleaned out every bit of our food in the cabinet and the refrigerator — pop, any kind of meat we had,” said Bob Gardner, whose vacation cabin was burglarized three times. (“‘Mountain-Man’ Thief Wins $412K for K-9 Bite”, AP/APB News, Feb. 4).
February 15 — Bill introduced to curb opportunistic ADA filings. Florida GOP Representatives Mark Foley and Clay Shaw have now introduced legislation “designed to block plaintiffs’ lawyers from using the Americans with Disabilities Act as a mill for grinding out legal fees,” reports the Miami Daily Business Review. As previously reported (see our January 26-27 commentary), more than 600 South Florida businesses have been hit with charges that their facilities are out of compliance with the ADA; most of the complaints can be traced to a small network of activists linked to lawyers who obtain legal fees typically in the thousands of dollars from defendants eager to settle. The new bill would require that businesses be given notice of an ADA problem and an opportunity to correct it before suit could be filed. According to a press release issued by the Congressmen, a group calling itself Citizens Concerned about Disability Access appears to consist mainly of “the two lawyers initiating the suits, and a neighbor and her disabled daughter who reportedly live across the street from one of the lawyers.” Some of its complaints are premised on the notion that the disabled daughter encountered barriers while trying to patronize the businesses, which included a pawn shop, a liquor store and a swimming-pool-supply store — the latter an especially curious subject of concern since the disabled daughter “has no swimming pool.” Last month U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno declined Rep. Foley’s request that the Justice Department investigate the matter. (Dan Christiansen, “Congressmen Rein In ‘Rogue’ Disabled Access Suits”, Miami Daily Business Review, Feb. 8).
February 15 — Britons debate false-rape-claim damages. In Newcastle upon Tyne, England, a four-man, eight-woman jury has ordered Lynn Walker to pay $630,000 (£400,000) in damages to co-worker Martin Garfoot, after concluding she had falsely accused him of raping her in a storeroom. Ms. Walker had waited nine months after the supposed incident to raise the claim and had sought neither police nor doctors’ help; video camera records from the days after the claimed attack showed her “at ease and untroubled” as she worked with the accused. Mr. Garfoot, 46, managed a branch of Boots, the drugstore concern; both Ms. Walker and Mr. Garfoot’s wife Janice are pharmacists. Feminist groups expressed outrage, but Mr. Garfoot’s barrister, Edward Garnier, Q.C., said: “She should not be able to simply walk away and hide in her tent after she has been found to be an out-and-out liar. Mr. Garfoot has spent the last few years wearing a cloak of shame. She twisted and twisted and twisted the knife in Mr. Garfoot.” (Nigel Bunyan, “Woman must pay £400,000 to man she said raped her”, Daily Telegraph (London), Feb. 8; Mark Blacklock, “Rape Claim Woman Lied”, Daily Express (London), Feb. 8).
February 14 — Bill Clinton among friendly crowd. The President hit Texas last week for a fund-raising tour of which the highlight was a $25,000-a-couple dinner hosted by trial lawyer husband-and-wife Fred Baron and Lisa Blue at their “palatial” (eleven bathrooms, six wet bars) Dallas home. The event raised an estimated $500,000 for the Democratic National Committee. The Reuters report describes Baron only as a “Democratic activist” but not as a trial lawyer, and none of the papers appear to pick up on his rather salient role as president-elect of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Needless to say, none of the reporters are so rude as to mention the controversies over the coaching of testimony in Baron’s asbestos claims practice, either. Maybe host and guest-of-honor shared tips about their respective successes with creative witness preparation.
The February 11 Dallas Morning News does report that at the Baron event “the president had plenty of lawyers to chat with. He was seated at the head table with trial lawyer Trevor Pearlman, and law partners/life partners Debbie and Frank Branson, as well as his lawyerly hosts.” (“Clinton Says Senate Doing ‘Slow Walk’ on Nominees, Reuters/Excite, Feb. 9; Madeline Baro Diaz, “Clinton arrives in South Texas to discuss border issues, raise money”, AP/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 10; Todd J. Gillman, “In Texas, Clinton blasts GOP”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 10; Alan Peppard, “Backing Bill all the way”, Dallas Morning News, Feb. 11 (fee-based archive)).
February 14 — U.S. foreign policy, hijacked by lawsuits. Trial lawyers’ freelance pile-on of WWII-recrimination suits is undercutting America’s effort to maintain a coherent foreign policy, most recently in Japan, where U.S. Ambassador Thomas S. Foley has joined the Japanese government in rejecting an attempt to claim compensation in U.S. courts for maltreated American prisoners in World War II. “The peace treaty put aside all claims against Japan,” Foley pointed out. The continuing claims are generating dismay and an anti-American backlash among Japanese (as also among citizens of various European nations). By this point, however, the American litigation system has grown so vigorous in its assertiveness that mere treaties may not be very effective at reining it in. (Doug Struck and Kathryn Tolbert, “US envoy, Japan reject WWII veterans’ lawsuits”, Boston Globe (originally Washington Post), Jan. 19, link now dead; Richard Pyle, “Ex-POWs want Japanese firms to pay for ‘slave labor'”, AP/Seattle Times, Sept. 15, 1999; “Anger as court rejects Allied POWs’ compensation suit”, CNN, Nov. 26, 1998) (see Sept. 20, Aug. 25, Feb. 5-6 commentaries).
February 14 — Improvements to our gun-litigation page. We’ve been continuing to add links to our subpage on firearms lawsuits. Included are the useful news-links page on gun issues maintained by the Colorado Shooting Sports Association, the special page on gun controversies at Jurist: The Law Professor’s Network, a bunch of choicely worded letters to the editor from the Detroit Free Press last summer responding to the NAACP’s suit, and Robert Levy’s Jan. 30 opinion piece for the National Law Journal, “Blackmail of gun makers“. In response to a suggestion from an attorney reader who protested, “We’re not all against gun rights, you know”, we’re also pleased to add a link to the Lawyers’ Second Amendment Society.
February 12-13 — AOL upgrade’s sharp elbows. America Online‘s new 5.0 upgrade, like many other pieces of software, asks whether you want to make it your “default” program for the purpose; if you say yes, it alters your settings in ways that make it easier to use AOL but harder to use other Internet service providers you may have installed. Some users have found that the AOL “default” setting makes it remarkably difficult indeed to use rival ISPs, and some ISPs report spending hours helping frustrated customers trying to use their service after having installed AOL 5.0 over it.
Enter class-action lawyers, who’ve filed two distinct lawsuits: one on behalf of the roughly 8 million AOL customers who’ve already installed the new version, and the other on behalf of rival ISPs. The suit on behalf of individual users rather arbitrarily demands up to $1,000 for each user, and CNN rose to the bait by describing the suit in its headline as being for $8 billion — even though AOL claims that more than 90 percent of its users do not have accounts with other ISPs, which means they’re unlikely to have run into difficulties (at least if they’re not trying to connect over a LAN or corporate system). AOL says other ISPs’ software does the same thing as its does, and contends that the upgrade gives users a smoother Net experience which has reduced reports of technical problems overall. According to USA Today, one of the suits invokes a federal anti-hacking law which provides both criminal and civil penalties for anyone “who alters the programs or use of a computer used in interstate commerce,” quoting “Lloyd Gathings, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer involved in the case.”
SOURCES: Brian McWilliams, “AOL Sued Over Networking Bugs in AOL 5.0″, InternetNews.com, Feb. 2 (& see same site, Oct. 6, 1999, Oct. 12, 1999, and Feb. 8, 2000, all links now dead); “AOL Sued over 5.0 Install”, Reuters/ZDNet, Feb. 2; Slashdot, Feb. 2 (bonus: thread includes link to this site); “Disgruntled AOL 5.0 users seek up to $8 billion in damages”, CNN.com, Feb. 2; “AOL sued over latest software”, USA Today, Feb. 2; Brooke A. Masters, “AOL Rivals File Suit Over Its New Software”, Washington Post, Feb. 8; Donna DeMarco, “AOL 5.0 problems boot up users’ ire”, Washington Times, Feb. 9, link now dead; Peter H. Lewis, “Takeover Artist”, New York Times, Feb. 10. The inevitable website by lawyers organizing the suits is called www.classactionversion5.com.
February 12-13 — Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes. Former Chicago City Treasurer Miriam Santos, once a rising star of the Democratic Party, has “blamed her now-overturned conviction on extortion charges on pre-menstrual syndrome….’I am human and probably the first woman to go to jail for PMSing,'” she told a news conference. (“Former treasurer blames PMS for crime”, UPI/Virtual New York, Feb. 7). A lawyer for New York City’s Dr. Allan Zarkin, charged with carving his initials into a sedated patient’s belly after delivering her baby by Caesarean section, says his client “has a “frontal lobe disorder” called Pick’s disease, an Alzheimer-like disease that causes personality and behavior changes and dementia.” (“Doctor charged in carving incident”, Reuters/Excite, Feb. 10; “Report: Woman Settles with Doctor”, Feb. 12). Vancouver Metis Indian Deanna Emard, convicted of stabbing her common-law husband to death, has gotten off without jail time because Canadian law now recognizes Indians’ cultural oppression as a mitigating factor in sentencing. (Neal Hall, “Metis woman avoids jail term for killing husband”, Vancouver Sun/National Post, Jan. 20). And in a recent U.S. News column, John Leo nominates 1999’s top ten claims of victimization, including several discussed previously in this space as well as additional contenders such as James Moore, a landscape gardener from upstate New York who raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl in 1962 and asked a judge last year for release from his life-without-parole sentence, arguing that exposure to insecticides made him do it. (“The top ten victims”, Jan. 31).
February 12-13 — The nutty professor. How does University of Wisconsin law professor Marc Galanter retain his position as the favorite academic of America’s trial lawyers? In part by his willingness to dispense to reporters quotes like the following: “Some who have studied the issue say that what Bush has called ‘the litigation explosion in Texas’ was nonexistent. ‘There is really no evidence that frivolous or totally unfounded lawsuits pose a significant problem,’ said [Galanter].” (George Lardner Jr., “‘Tort Reform': Mixed Verdict”, Washington Post, Feb. 10). (tell the Post what you think).
February 10-11 — Antitrust obstacles to hacker defense. This week’s hacker attacks on Yahoo, E-Trade and other sites are likely to encourage proposals to establish surveillance of the Net by federal law enforcers, but a better reaction, according to MIT network manager Jeff Schiller, would be to roll back existing regulations that make it hard for operators to coordinate network security. “There needs to be a way network operators can [work together] in a way that’s immune from Sherman antitrust,” he said. “We had a situation at IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) where we couldn’t have two people in the same room together by themselves since they were representatives of big competitors.” (Declan McCullagh, “Was Yahoo Smurfed or Trinooed?”, Wired News, Feb. 8) (second page of story).
February 10-11 — ADA vs. freedom of expression on the Web. The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that a wide range of Internet activity may be subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act and its requirement that “reasonable accommodation” be provided to handicapped users (see Dec. 21 commentary). At a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday (Wednesday), panelists explained that a wide range of common page construction techniques currently cause websites to be “inaccessible”, including the use of undescribed visual and audio elements, image maps that lack text for hotspots, link text that does not make sense when read out of context (example: “click here”), graphs and charts that are not summarized, nondescriptive frames titles, and much more. The editor of this site, unlike several of the other witnesses, found it alarming that federal law should presume to enforce such rules on private web publishers. We’ll try to provide a fuller report on the hearing at a later point; in the mean time, we’ve posted our editor’s prepared statement.
February 10-11 — “Not-a-Lawyer”. Fast Company nominates it as among “Job Titles of the Future”, and it’s the official description on Rory Holland’s business card. Mr. Holland works for Canadian law firm Russell & DuMoulin in Vancouver, helping clients “figure out what role lawyers should play in their companies”. (Erika Germer, Fast Company, March).
February 10-11 — Gun litigation roundup. Free-Market.Net’s J.D. Tuccille has assembled a link-rich “Spotlight on Anti-Gun Lawsuits” feature (Jan. 6). At a gun industry trade show last month in Las Vegas, members vowed greater activism in fending off attacks on their business, including the formation of a legal defense fund under the auspices of the National Shooting Sports Federation to respond to courtroom bullying. (Melanie Eversley, “Gun dealers take aim at rash of anti-gun suits”, Knight-Ridder/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Jan. 19). And in a Cato Institute Daily Commentary, David Kopel counters some myths about the supposed “gun show loophole”. One Congresswoman has charged that 70 percent of guns used in crimes come from gun shows, but National Institute of Justice figures indicate the figure is 2 percent, Kopel says. Handgun Control, Inc. “claims that ’25-50 percent of the vendors at most gun shows are unlicensed dealers.’ That statistic is true only if one counts vendors who aren’t selling guns (e.g., vendors who are selling books, clothing or accessories) as ‘unlicensed dealers.'” (David Kopel, “The Facts About Gun Shows”, Cato Daily Commentary, Jan. 10).
February 10-11 — Orange, soured. After representing bankrupt Orange County, Calif. and other public entities seeking to recoup investment damages, the L. A.-based law firm of Hennigan, Mercer & Bennett petitioned for an extra $48.7 million on top of its standard fee. In November U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor of Santa Ana issued an order allowing a mere $3 million of that request. What really stung was the judge’s language: he called the firm’s arguments for the enhanced fee “flawed”, “cynical”, and even “unethical” and “dishonorable”. The firm had already been accorded fees of $26.3 million based on hourly charges of up to $445 an hour for its work on the cases, but then placed a lien on the county’s recovery in quest of an additional $48.7 million as a “lodestar” multiplier to reward it for having achieved good results in the face of difficulty. “If lawyers in cases like these are paid only their straight hourly rates, they have less reason to maximize results for clients,” the firm said in a court filing, which prompted the judge to ask at oral argument: “Do you really believe that?” The judge’s subsequent fee opinion asserted that attorneys are obliged to do their best for clients whether or not the fee arrangement partakes of a contingency element: “anything less would be unethical and dishonorable.” Now there’s a revolutionary idea! A legal ethics expert says the judge is being “idealistic”. (Gail Diane Cox, “Firm Smacked by Judge Over Orange Bankruptcy”, Cal Law/The Recorder, Nov. 17).
February 8-9 — Litigious varsity. “High school sports should be a healthy, fun lesson in fair play, not a prep course for law school.” But parents and educators are running to court to get referees’ calls reversed, says a Boston Globe editorial. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association reports that eight lawsuits arose in the last year alone from high school games. After a brawl during a recent hockey game between Melrose and Stoneham, several players were handed a two-game suspension, but a mother went to court and got a restraining order letting her son back on the ice, claiming he hadn’t been involved. In a case in Springfield, officials didn’t clear the legal paperwork allowing them to eject an offending player until the next game was about to begin and the National Anthem was playing, the player suited up and ready. (“Spoiled sports” (editorial), Boston Globe, Jan. 17, link now dead). And in Brunswick, Ohio, a father sued the coach of the Brunswick Cobras boy’s baseball team for leading the team to such a poor record. “Charles Settles, whose son, Kevin, was the catcher on the 16-year-old-and-under team,” went to small claims court asking $2,000, “the estimated value of a seven-day Florida trip the team could have made had it not lost every game — most by a 10-run ‘mercy’ rule.” A magistrate dismissed the action. (Stephen Hudak, “Losing season prompts dad to sue son’s coach”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan. 9).
February 8-9 — From the dog’s point of view. A week ago we reported on dogbitelaw.com, a lawyer’s website that encourages persons bitten by dogs to sue the animals’ owners (see February 1 commentary). Now, for balance, here’s an excerpt from a Washington Times interview last week with Boston attorney Steven Wise, who heads an animal-rights group called the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights. “Over the last 15 years, I have represented probably 150 owners of dogs who have been ordered executed or banished from their towns. People may have complained they bit someone or they bark excessively.
“Most people who have companion animals consider them family members. They come to me and say one of my family members has been ordered executed. We’ve managed to save the lives of every single one except for two people who didn’t stay with us.
“We try to convince judges to say it’s a good and safe thing for dogs to live with their families. We bring in an animal behaviorist and try to help the judge understand what happened from a dog’s point of view.”
The judges who hear these cases aren’t the only ones giving more consideration to the dog’s point of view; last week Harvard Law School kicked off its first-ever class in animal-rights law, with Mr. Wise as instructor. (“Animal rights lawyer unleashes profession”, Washington Times, Feb. 3, link now dead).
February 8-9 — Emails that ended 20 Times careers. MSNBC has posted this Wall Street Journal account of the New York Times‘s mass firing of 23 employees, all but one of them in the company’s Norfolk, Va. outpost, found to have forwarded offensive e-mails, including sexually oriented images, blonde jokes and Ebonics jokes. One of the fired employees, former database security manager Carla Belgrave, “who is black, says she found the Ebonics jokes funny. ‘I don’t speak that way,’ she shrugs. ‘Who’s to tell me what I should be offended by?'”.
“Why are the Times and other companies so concerned about e-mail? One reason is their liability in harassment suits. One or two explicit e-mail messages typically aren’t enough by themselves to prove that a workplace environment was hostile. But such e-mail can bolster other damaging evidence. At a subsidiary of Chevron Corp., e-mail containing such jokes as ’25 reasons beer is better than women’ were used along with other evidence in a sexual-harassment claim that was settled in 1995 for $2.2 million.” (Ann Cairns, “That bawdy e-mail was good for a laugh — until the ax fell”, MSNBC (highlights from WSJ.com), Feb. 4, link now dead). Also see Lisa Fried, “Employers Crack Down on Personal Internet Use”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 3; Christine A. Amalfe and Kerrie R. Heslin, “Courts start to rule on online harassment”, National Law Journal, Jan. 24).
February 8-9 — Court insists on summoning nine-year-old girl as juror. Her Brooklyn parents have been trying to explain for the past year that she’s too young to serve, but the paperwork grinds on as judicial officials insist that fourth-grader Alyson Fuchs report for her civic duty. Her mom, who thinks Alyson may have gotten on prospective-juror lists because she has college savings in a mutual fund, is giving up and bringing her in to the courthouse, which she’s eager to see anyway. (Bridget Harrison, “A Jury of Peers?”, Fox News/New York Post, Feb. 6) (via Reason Express)
February 7 — Mobile Register probes class-action biz. Alabama cases have figured prominently in complaints of class-action abuse and the Mobile Register deserves some sort of prize for the thorough investigation of the topic it published over the holidays in a five-day report written by Eddie Curran. The series contains too much good material to summarize in a single installment, so we’ll start with one chunk for now and come back for more later. (Impatient readers can find the entire series here: “On behalf of all others”, Mobile Register, Dec. 26-30).
The series includes a thorough airing of the famous BancBoston case of the mid-1990s, filed in Mobile, in which locally based lawyer John Sharbrough teamed up with the Chicago class-action firm of Daniel Edelman to accuse the large lender of retaining excessively high escrows for mortgage borrowers nationwide, one of many similar class actions filed at the time against mortgage lenders over escrow practices. Pressured by a rules change from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, BancBoston and other lenders agreed to reduce the escrows, thus allowing consumers earlier recoupment of money which they’d eventually have gotten back anyway. In the case of BancBoston, the repayments that were accelerated were estimated in the lawsuit at about $42 million, but the actual sum seems to have been lower.
For achieving this result, the class-action lawyers asked for more than $14 million, all of it deducted directly from consumer accounts; Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Braxton Kittrell wound up granting them more than $8.5 million of that request. Thus consumers around the country were billed what was often $100, $150 and more in exchange for benefits that included the refund of a few dollars interest (in no case more than $8.76) and the chance to use their funds somewhat earlier than would otherwise be the case — mere weeks or months earlier in the case of many who were near refinancing or selling their homes at the time.
How’d the lawyers pull it off? They hired as expert witness a local accountant who testified that the real economic benefit to a consumer of getting back a lump of money earlier than otherwise is equal to the total sum at issue — after all, once he had it in hand he could invest it and double his money! The lawyers could then claim fees equal to a third of this notional benefit. The witness also assumed that the bank would otherwise have held surplus escrows for twenty years before refunding them, though in fact most loans get paid off through refinances or home sales within a few years and many of the mortgages were of 15-year duration. Boston U. law professor Susan Koniak, who’s co-authored a law review article on the case, describes the resulting enrichment of lawyers as “so outrageous, it’s not even a close call”. When a Maine real estate broker and class member named Dexter Kamilewicz stepped forward to challenge it, however, Chicago lawyer Edelman countersued Kamilewicz personally for $25 million, cowing him into silence (see Nov. 15 commentary).
Prominent class-action lawyer Elizabeth Cabraser, who was not involved in the case, defended the current state of the system, telling the Register that the BancBoston case is “like urban folklore“, that it “did happen, but it continues to be brought out as an example of class action abuse when in fact there’s never been another case like it,” in her words. “There’s never going to be another BancBoston case, and there doesn’t need to be legislation to prevent that from recurring. It won’t. It was freak in every sense.”
But is that so? The Register had no trouble finding escrow cases against other mortgage lenders that led to outcomes very similar to those in BancBoston, but were given less publicity. In these cases, too, consumers found themselves docked hundreds of dollars for little evident benefit and complained in heated letters to the court. In truth, “the BancBoston case was not alone…some other Alabama judges — such as Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sally Greenhaw and Choctaw County Circuit Court Judge Harold Crow — approved similar settlements for the same lawyers, but avoided public scorn.” In a case against Colonial Mortgage, class lawyers asked judge to award them 40 percent of the escrow sums — an even higher share than in the BancBoston case. (“You win, you pay”, Dec. 29; “Bottom of the class”, Dec. 30; “Colonial customers rage at lawyer, judge”, Dec. 29).
February 7 — New subpage on Overlawyered.com: disabled-rights law. In which we pull together our reports on how students with clever parents get extra time on the SATs, the risk if you’re a merchant of not admitting an emotional-support dog to your shop, courthouses that hear handicap accommodation lawsuits but fail to comply with the law themselves, disability suits for boozing student athletes who don’t want to be thrown off the team, and other dispatches from the front lines of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes. Incidentally, this Wednesday our editor is going to be a witness at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the ADA’s application to the Internet. See our Dec. 21 commentary for a preview of his likely comments about the ominous implications of letting website publishers get sued on the grounds that their content isn’t sufficiently “accessible” to all users.
February 5-6 — Don’t blame us, we didn’t say it: “‘If criminals can rehabilitate themselves, then why can’t lawyers?’ — East Lansing attorney Steven A. Mitchell, quoted in Michigan Lawyers Weekly on a proposal to permanently disbar lawyers for misconduct.” The Detroit News ran the above item under the heading: “But I Repeat Myself”. (Editorial roundup, Jan. 22).
February 5-6 — Weekend reading: columnist-fest. More well-stated cases from the in-box:
* Laura Pulfer of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who admits to an occasional weakness for shopping sprees at outlet stores, receives a notice in the mail saying she’s a member of the plaintiff class in a class action against Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation. “I am allowing myself to get a little bit excited. This is a defendant with deep, deep pockets. And Mr. Lauren apparently has done something terrible, something really bad, something actionable, something expensive to me.” However, the prospective settlement merely promises a discount if she goes back for another splurge at the store (“Lawsuit just an invitation to go shopping”, Feb. 3). Bonus: the same columnist comments on animal-rights law (“Does your dog need services of a lawyer?”, Nov. 7) and on warning labels (“It’s impossible to outlaw sheer stupidity”, Feb. 18, 1999) (NPR Morning Edition version, Real Audio).
* “There’s scarcely an issue in international affairs this year more likely to induce a feeling of moral superiority in Americans than that of the dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks.” Yet the recently issued Volcker report reveals that the actual sums in such accounts fall “staggeringly short” of what had been alleged by American class-action lawyers. More remarkable yet, the United States was at least as important as Switzerland as a destination for money escaping Nazi rule, yet somehow escapes scrutiny though it did little after the war to compensate heirs of dormant accounts (Alexander Cockburn, “Forget About the Swiss; What About US Banks?”, NewsMax, Dec. 29).
* Good general brief overview by CBS News legal correspondent Andrew Cohen on why this country is so litigious and what might be done — he even mentions loser-pays. (“Americans going nuts for lawsuits”, USA Today, undated). It leads with this grabber: “The Girl Scouts now take customers to small claims court when cookie payments are not made on time.” We hope he’s just referring to one overzealous troop somewhere.
February 5-6 — 200,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
February 4 — Special assignments for special cases? Federal judges at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. have now voted to require incoming cases to be assigned randomly among their number. Eyebrows were raised last year when it was revealed that chief judge Norma Holloway Johnson had used special procedures to bypass random selection and assign six Clinton Administration scandal cases to judges appointed by the Clinton Administration. Included were five fund-raising prosecutions, including that of presidential friend Charlie Trie, plus the tax evasion case of Webster Hubbell. In a letter to the editor of a newspaper, Judge Johnson said that she made the assignments to “move the docket as expeditiously as possible” and that politics was “never a factor.” (“U.S. judges end controversial rule that let Clinton appointees get Democrats’ cases”, AP/Dallas Morning News, Feb. 3).
February 4 — Jeff MacNelly. The premier editorial cartoonist of his generation is currently keeping to a reduced but regular output schedule while battling health challenges. His website allows you to send him a get-well message and browse an archive of his cartoons back to the middle of last year, including great panels on Microsoft, health care, tobacco, tobacco (again) and many more. Then there’s his oil painting of lawyers….
February 4 — Taco Bell bites back. In 1997 customer Dwonne N. Carter charged that she had been insulted because of her race by an employee at a Taco Bell in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Plenty of press coverage resulted, and the restaurant’s business fell off sharply. But Carter’s story in her discrimination lawsuit kept changing, and she turned out to have previously filed and then recanted charges of rape and abduction in another case. Taco Bell countersued for defamation and last month a jury found in the company’s favor, awarding it a token $1,060 in damages. The tapes from the restaurant’s surveillance camera proved particularly helpful. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Customer defamed Taco Bell, jury decides”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 14).
February 4 — Green cards gather moss. Linus Torvalds, Finland-born architect of Linux and perhaps the world’s most admired programmer, has been in this country three years. He’s still waiting for his green card. Thousands of engineers and other highly skilled immigrants in Silicon Valley are in the same predicament, as delays stretch on seemingly endlessly in the processing of applications for permanent residency. The average wait for final green card processing has jumped from 21 months a year and a half ago to 33 months. Holders of H-1B visas can stay at most six years, which is not always long enough to make it through the queue. “Real lives are being destroyed,” says immigration attorney Peter Larrabee, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service official privately calls the situation “a mess”. At least no one can accuse us of discriminating unduly in favor of the talented. (Ken McLaughlin, “Workers left in limbo by INS”, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 30, link now dead; Wired News, Feb. 1).
February 3 — Reason Online “Featured Site”. Overlawyered.com has just been awarded this honor, bestowed approximately weekly by the lively website associated with the magazine of “free minds and free markets”. While you’re visiting the site, now would be a good time to catch up with our editor’s February column, which examines the class-action lawyers’ assault on the high-tech business, taking off from the Toshiba laptop settlement and the private actions against Microsoft that tagged along in the wake of Judge Jackson’s findings of fact. (main page/archive; Walter Olson, “Gold Bugs”, Reason, February).
February 3 — Tobacco: Connecticut AG has “no idea” whether lawyers he hired are overcharging. Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut, is much feared by that state’s business community for his relentless and headline-grabbing pace of suit-filing; he’s known for “demonizing his foes”. One group of business people in the state, however, will “do extraordinarily well” from his tenure: the “tiny group of private lawyers” whom he hired to represent the state in the tobacco litigation. Queried about how much money these lawyers are getting from the deal, Blumenthal says, “I have no idea.” He says he’s sure it’s “substantially less” than the generous 25 percent contingency he agreed to bestow on them, which if followed through would have given them $900 million (the firms agreed not to insist on that full amount). It happens that the four lucky law firms he picked to do the work include his own former firm, Silver, Golub & Teitell of Stamford. (Thomas Scheffey, “Jedi Blumenthal”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Dec. 1) (see February 16 update: fees to total $65 million, more details on lucky firms).
February 3 — Another pro bono triumph. Beat cop Jim Gratz says he was acting on his own initiative when, imitating a practice used by some other Bay Area police departments, he asked some of the hardest-core drinkers who slept in San Francisco’s Washington Square Park if he could snap their pictures. Then he had flyers printed up and handed them to owners of nearby liquor stores, asking them not to sell to these people. “Someone had to do something to try and save their lives…I have nothing against booze, but plainly it was killing them,” he says. Well, the homeless-advocacy lawyers were on his case like a duck on a June bug, and soon the city agreed to settle the resulting litigation by paying each of the ten people approximately $960, which they spent on…well, what do you think they spent it on? All are still on the street, Gratz says, and one was admitted to Laguna Honda Hospital nearly paralyzed with alcohol poisoning. (Scott Ostler, “Trying to Help Just Doesn’t Pay”, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 6).
February 2 — “Children’s rights” fee grab. In 1995, following front-page scandals about child neglect in New York City, a private group called Children’s Rights Inc. filed suit seeking court oversight of the city’s child welfare system. The case ended in a settlement in December 1998. Now Children’s Rights Inc. is asking a court to award it $9.1 million in legal fees for its work on the case, to be paid from — where else? — taxpayer funds. City child welfare commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta is particularly steamed about the fee demand because he says the city offered to settle the case in May 1997 on terms substantially the same as those eventually reached. Children’s Rights Inc. spurned that offer and insisted on battling for a further year and a half, during which time the group ran up what it says are $6 million in billable hours. Scoppetta says $9 million would be enough to hire 230 child welfare caseworkers, put 1,059 children in Head Start for a year or support 1,200 kids in foster care, if it isn’t handed to lawyers instead. (“Children’s rights is wrong” (editorial), New York Daily News, Feb. 1; “Children’s Advocacy Pays” (editorial), New York Post, Feb. 1; past Post coverage).
February 2 — Cookies, dunked. Privacy advocates have been aghast at the recent disclosure that Internet ad-placement firm DoubleClick is planning to combine cookie use with access to clients’ site-registration data in ways that will enable it to detect the actual identity of many users who currently enjoy the customary expectation of anonymity as they browse its clients’ sites. Already a California lawyer has jumped in to sue the company; his named client does not claim to have suffered any damages, but he says he wants to “put DoubleClick’s policies under a microscope.” Of course his client could just have gone to DoubleClick’s site and selected the “opt out” feature, which the company says will bail you out of its cookie-mongering for the life of your browser or until you delete your cookie file, whichever comes first. To repeat: if a privacy solution that simple happens to appeal to you, just press here and follow the “opt out” link. But that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as suing, would it? (“DoubleClick defends data gathering as suit pends”, FindLaw/Reuters, Jan. 28; “Privacy group eyes DoubleClick”, Reuters/Wired News, Feb. 1). Update May 9, 2001: federal court dismisses one such suit.
February 2 — Cuomo menaces gun makers: “death by a thousand cuts”. Settlement talks have broken down between firearms makers and activist litigators who continue to seek restrictions on gun sales that go beyond anything they can persuade democratically elected legislatures to enact. On Monday HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo warned gun companies that unless they cooperate they’ll suffer “death by a thousand cuts” from lawsuits filed by 28 localities (and vocally backed by his own department). Could the Cabinet secretary be invoking the cost-infliction threat of litigation to bully an opponent? Naah — that would be unethical. (Bill McAllister, “Gun industry rejects settlement effort”, Denver Post, Feb. 1).
February 1 — Welcome Humorix (and Slashdot) visitors. Humorix, complete with penguin-graphic adornment, consists of parody and humor articles geared to aficionados of the Linux open-source operating system. Last week it ran a piece by Dave Finton and James Baughn about the DVD-copying-code litigation (see Dec. 31 commentary) which pointed to this site by way of providing an embedded link for the phrase “overachieving lawyers”. Then yesterday a discussion of the piece in turn made it onto Slashdot. Jeepers, do a lot of people ever read Slashdot: next thing we knew we were beating, by far, this site’s previous daily traffic record (assisted by some other publicity). (“Corporate Media Conglomerate HOWTO”, Jan. 26.)
February 1 — Give us Syracuse. Trial began last week in upstate New York on Cayuga Indian land claims, the first such Indian case to make it to a jury for damages. Lawyers for the tribe, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, say they’re owed at least $335 million in market value and rental fees for lands in the Finger Lakes region bought from them in 1795 and 1807 in deals which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 voided as having lacked the federal government’s go-ahead as required by law. Waiting in the wings: similar (often larger) claims by the Oneidas, Mohawks, Senecas and Onondagas. Wrangling over the Onondaga claim promises to be especially lively because the large tract of land under dispute includes the city of Syracuse, New York’s fifth largest. “It’s in total violation,” says the Onondaga chief, referring to the 160,000-population community. (James Odato, “Land’s value at heart of Cayuga claim case”, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 25; David L. Shaw, “Damages trial focuses on cash”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 24; “Claim comes down to numbers”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 25; Matthew Purdy, “Tribal Justice? They’d Settle for Syracuse”, New York Times, Jan. 30; see our Oct. 5-6, Oct. 27 commentaries) (via Empire Page) (see update, Feb. 19-21).
February 1 — Down, attorney! Down! Here’s a site for you if you’re a mailman tired of having your leg chewed on, or just want to convince the neighbors to send that ill-tempered yapper of theirs to the glue factory: dogbitelaw.com. “Attorney Kenneth Phillips is available by e-mail at no charge. He will respond to your questions about dog bites,” explains the promotional copy. Lots of links, too, such as one to the website of a canine forensics specialist to testify in your lawsuit: dogexpert.com. (via The Recorder/Cal Law).
February 1 — Career advice: become a lawsuit entrepreneur. Columnist Jim Pinkerton tells the public-administration class of ’00 they’re wasting their time thinking about civil service, when the real action in government today is in privately managed policy-through-lawsuits. “Why plow through discrimination cases in a back room at the EEOC, when you can join hands with Jesse Jackson and sue the pants off of some big company in a civil rights class action? Why work at the FDA and worry about drug approvals, when you can work at a law firm and share in billions after the drug is withdrawn and the suits are settled? Why lobby for gun control, when you can sue and put the gun makers out of business?” Why tinker with health care regulation when you can just file suit against HMOs and make yourself a player at the negotiation table overnight? Yes, it’s a parody, but just barely. (James Pinkerton, “Being a Bureaupreneur”, GovExec.com (Government Executive magazine), January).
February 29 — Update: Publishers Clearing House case. Turning aside objections from state attorneys general who viewed the deal as offering more prizes to lawyers than to magazine subscribers, federal judge G. Patrick Murphy approved a settlement of a class-action suit against Publishers Clearing House for allegedly misleading sweepstakes claims. He also approved as fair and reasonable the payment of $3 million in legal fees to the class lawyers, a sum criticized as excessive by objectors and by commentators such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Bill McClellan. (“Publishers Clearing House Deal OKd”, AP/FindLaw, Feb. 22).
As readers of this space will recall (see Nov. 30, Nov. 4 commentaries) McClellan in his column on the suit jocularly compared class-action lawyers to bank robbers and then corrected himself, saying the comparison wasn’t fair to bank robbers, who don’t pretend they’re in business for our good. Class-action lawyers Judy Cates and Stephen Katz then proceeded to sue him for $1 million, charging that these sentiments had defamed them. Among the discovery demands they proceeded to make was that McClellan turn over everything he’d written in the past decade that was “in any way critical or mocking to lawyers or lawsuits.” In another of their discovery forays, McClellan advises readers in a recent column, “Cates and Katz were demanding all correspondence I have received relating to their lawsuit. In other words, if you sent me a letter or an e-mail concerning this case, they wanted it. They wanted to see who has written what about them.” Now an agreement has been reached to end the lawsuit — on what terms is not immediately apparent. (Bill McClellan, “This is a situation where even when you win, you lose”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 23).
February 29 — Feds’ mission: target Silicon Valley for race complaints. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has decided that Silicon Valley employers would make a suitably high-profile target for a series of race discrimination complaints, and now is “scouring” the Valley for likely defendants. A likely charge is that despite the strong representation in high-tech employment of ethnic groups from around the world, local blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in professional and managerial slots. “We’ve been beefing up our staffing in every place that we see significant economic growth related to high technology,” says EEOC vice chairman Paul Igasaki, a long-time civil rights attorney: “this is an industry in which a message may need to be sent.” A source within the agency puts it more bluntly: “We’re busy looking under every rock we can, looking for a couple of high-profile companies we can hit with a suit.” (Gary Rivlin, “Busting the Myth of the Meritocracy”, The Industry Standard, Feb. 21).
February 29 — Tobacco lawyers’ lien leverage. While states are salivating at the vast new revenue banquet promised by the tobacco settlement — with no need to do anything unpopular, like raise taxes! — some are finding that the trial lawyers who seemed so helpful at first are now proving obstreperous, slapping the states with liens that may prevent the distribution of some or all settlement booty until the lawyers’ share is resolved. In New Jersey, Bergen County plaintiff’s attorneys Terry Bottinelli and Marc Saperstein blocked access to upwards of $92 million in funds, then relented when the state agreed to help document their case for sharing in the fee payday, though in the end it merely made short mention of their work in a press release. (Matt Ackermann, “New Jersey’s Tobacco-Suit Dividends Delayed by Hold-Out Attorneys”, New Jersey Law Journal, Jan. 11; “Holdout Tobacco Lawyers Will Relent If State Documents Their Case for Fees”, Jan. 18; “N.J. Tobacco Settlement Holdouts Drop Appeal”, Feb. 17) (more N.J. tobacco-fee coverage: Oct. 1). In Illinois, Seattle attorney Steve Berman’s Hagens & Berman, San Francisco’s Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, and two other firms slapped a lien on the state’s $9.1 billion windfall; last fall a national arbitration panel ruled that while the Berman firm had been an important player in tobacco litigation on the national scene, “relatively little was done to advance the case to trial in Illinois”. Berman, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, conceded that not everyone sympathized with his position that he and the other lawyers are nonetheless entitled to as much as $910 million for their Illinois work: “Some people say lawyers have got a lot of money and are overpaid and are bad guys anyway”. (Rick Pearson, “Lawyers demand a bigger piece of tobacco cash pie”, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 23) (more Illinois tobacco-fee coverage: Oct. 16; more on Berman: Feb. 28, Aug. 21).
February 28 — “Medical errors” study. Malpractice lawyers have already seized on a recent federal study (see Feb. 22 commentary) which extrapolated from a study of hospitals in three states to the conclusion that between 44,000 and 98,000 patients die each year nationally because of mistakes in medical care. In a short paper for the Statistical Assessment Service, Iain Murray and Howard Fienberg point out a few of the study’s questionable premises. For example, the study’s definition of medication-related errors, a significant share of the total, “is based on errors that resulted ‘from acknowledged errors by patients and medical personnel'” (emphasis added). “In other words, if a patient takes an overdose or fails to inform their medical advisers of other conflicting medications they are taking, that is regarded as a medical error, rather than misadventure.” (Iain Murray and Howard Fienberg, “Doctoring the Data, Nursing the News?”, “STATS Spotlight”, Feb. 24) (via Junk Science). Plus: a Chicago Tribune editorial urges caution: “Don’t Compound Medical Errors”, Feb. 27.
February 28 — Fifteen years locked away. If you think the day-care-abuse mania of the 1980s has mostly run its course, consider the case of Bernard Baran, convicted of mass molestation in 1985 in Pittsfield, Mass. under the sorts of dubious circumstances that were later to become familiar in such cases. Katha Pollitt’s Nation account mentions in passing that the mother who initiated the accusations, a drug addict living in troubled circumstances, proceeded to file a suit against the center demanding $3.2 million (the case “was settled out of court, reputedly for a small sum”), and that one of the children, whose mother was a friend of the original accuser, “told a therapist after the trial that her mother had told her to say Baran had molested her so they could get toys and money”. Since Baran still insists on his innocence he’s ineligible for parole. (Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate: Justice for Bernard Baran”, The Nation, March 13) (via Arts & Letters Daily) (“The Appalling Case of Bernard Baran”, website about the case).
February 28 — Hiring talent from the opposing camp. Seattle plaintiff’s lawyer Steven Berman is among the most feared in the country; a class-action securities specialist, he went on to assume a prominent role in the tobacco litigation (see August 21; his fee from that has been estimated at $2 billion). But now the city’s best known corporate citizen, Microsoft, has quietly hired Berman to help it fend off the wave of class-action lawsuits it’s facing over its antitrust troubles. According to Forbes‘s “The Informer”, Berman and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates have become personal friends — notwithstanding a 1989 incident in which, following a sudden drop in the company’s stock price, Berman filed a lawsuit against the company and won $1.5 million. (Elizabeth Corcoran and Tomas Kellner, “The Informer”, Forbes, Feb. 7) (fourth item).
February 28 — Welcome Duke Law visitors. Overlawyered.com is the featured “site of the week” on the Duke Law School “Faculty and Staff Gateway” page.
February 26-27 — Legal ethics meet medical ethics. Two weeks ago, in preparation for his second murder trial on charges of pushing Kendra Webdale to her death on the New York subway last January, Andrew Goldstein went off his antipsychotic medication. Mr. Goldstein’s court-appointed lawyers “advised him to go off his drugs in an effort to demonstrate to the jury the debilitating effects of his mental illness”. Doctors treating the 30-year-old schizophrenic at Bellevue were strongly opposed to the tactic, and some outside observers were also skeptical, such as Columbia law professor Richard Uviller, who said “a lawyer’s first duty is to preserve his client’s health.” However, schizophrenia expert Dr. E. Fuller Torrey called the move legitimate and said he himself “had intentionally given homeless mentally ill patients less medication than they needed before court competency hearings to keep them from being released back onto the street.” Justice Carol Berkman of State Supreme Court in Manhattan “has said she would allow Mr. Goldstein to stop taking his medication for as long as he appeared competent to stand trial. If he appeared not to understand his surroundings, she ruled, he would be forcibly given his medication.” The new trial is expected to last at least a month; the first ended in a jury deadlock and mistrial. (David Rohde, “For Retrial, Subway Defendant Goes Off Medication”, New York Times, Feb. 23 — fee-based archive).
February 26-27 — “Judgment reversed in Seinfeld case”. “An appeals court on Tuesday reversed a $25 million judgment awarded to a man who was fired after a female co-worker complained that he harassed her by discussing a racy episode of ‘Seinfeld.’ … The ‘Seinfeld’ element of the case eventually became secondary and a Milwaukee County Circuit court dismissed a wrongful-firing claim.” Jerold Mackenzie had argued that his bosses at Miller Brewing Co. were already plotting to fire him from his $95,000-a-year management job at a time when they told him his position was safe. (Jenny Price, AP/Washington Post, Feb. 22, link now dead).
February 26-27 — Deep pockets blameable for denial of service attacks? PBS commentator Robert X. Cringely has posted a bunch of emails from his readers concerning the coordinated “distributed denial of service” attacks on major web sites earlier this month. Among them was the following from Jay Kangel: “At some point one of these hacking events is going to cost someone who can hire lots of lawyers with real money. At that point the victim, or the victim’s insurance company, will want to sue for damages. The actual hacker will likely have little or no money. Even if the victim wins such a suit the damages cannot be recovered. The deep pockets are the owners of the zombie machines. Is it negligence if a machine owner does not promptly install security patches and, as a result, hackers take over the machine? I don’t know….” (“The Cat is Out of the Bag”, I, Cringely: The Pulpit, Feb. 24).
February 26-27 — Mayors: liability fears stalling “brownfields” development. A report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors finds that liability fears are among major factors stalling redevelopment of “brownfields” (abandoned or underused industrial sites) in American cities. Environmentalists and urbanists consider brownfields an attractive alternative for new industrial development near the existing workforce, remedying eyesores and bolstering urban tax bases while avoiding development of peripheral vacant land around cities (“sprawl”). The open-ended liability inflicted by the Superfund program, however, menaces new developers, lenders, realtors and users with potential responsibility for the environmental sins of long-departed actors. (“Traci Watson, “Report finds more than 80,000 acres of polluted land in USA”, USA Today, Feb. 25, link now dead; report and news release).
February 25 — Music stores sue Sony. Candidate for the distinction of lamest business-vs.-business suit of the year? You be the judge. The National Association of Recording Merchandisers has filed suit against Sony for the purported offense of including hyperlinks and promotional inserts in or with its music products that enable/encourage consumers to use its online store, thus “diverting” them away from their destined role as future purchasers at the retail outlet. “Few retailers are happy about having to stock Ricky Martin CD’s with hyperlinks to Sonymusic.com [where customers can buy more CDs], but Sony hasn’t provided any alternative,” complains Pamela Horovitz of NARM. This practice amounts, says Horovitz, to “forcing retailers to steer their own customers to competitive sites”. “Forcing”? Well, it seems, the latest Ricky Martin album was just too darn popular for record stores to consider not stocking it by way of punishing Sony for its hyperlink policy.
The retailers insist that Sony has a legal obligation to make available to them CDs stripped of the capability to hyperlink to an online store, much as if newsstand distributors demanded that publishers supply magazines that were free of subscription cards (which of course tend to “divert” readers’ business from further newsstand purchases of the magazine). The complaint also charges Sony with “copyright misuse, illegal price discrimination by favoring its own record club and on-line music retailer (CDNow/ Columbia House) over other retailers, unfair competition, and false advertising.” (“Retailers Sue Sony”, Reuters/Wired News, Jan. 31; NARM press release, Jan. 31; Pamela Horovitz, commentary, Billboard, July 1999 (reprinted at NARM site, second item)).
February 25 — Not to be dismissed. Item from a recent (Jan. 27) edition of Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird, under the heading “Fireproof Workers“: “An arbitration panel ruled in July that Toronto Transit Commission janitor Winston Ruhle had been improperly fired and deserved about $115,000 (U.S.) in damages; he was fired in 1995 for padding his recuperation time after surgery, improperly missing 203 days during a 244-day period. And English chauffeur John Forbes, 55, won an employment tribunal ruling in September that it was unfair to fire him simply because he had twice dressed in women’s clothing on the job and flashed his underwear to passing motorists.”
February 25 — Secrets of class action defense. “Some companies facing a multitude of class actions have been accused of shopping for the cheapest settlements by choosing to deal with lawyers willing to seek less for class members, sometimes in return for a hefty legal fee,” reports the Mobile Register in its investigative series (see Feb. 7 commentary). For example, Norwest Financial was accused of overcharging for credit life insurance in a class action filed in Birmingham; it offered a settlement, which was rejected. It then struck a similar deal with a Mobile lawyer to settle the case on behalf of the same class. “‘Defendants can to some degree get different plaintiffs’ lawyers to bid against each other,’ said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University in New York and expert on class action law. … If one plaintiffs’ lawyer drives a hard bargain and seeks a truly beneficial settlement for a class, a company may seek another lawyer and ask him to file a suit for the purpose of settling, and on terms the company dictates.
“Coffee said it’s ‘a game’ by which a defendant arranges for a plaintiffs’ attorney to agree to a ‘modest settlement for the class but very lucrative attorney’s fees. The defendant might even write up the complaint to make sure it’s competent and covers everything,’ Coffee said.” (Eddie Curran, “Judge: Mobile deal a ‘cheap ticket out of trouble'”, Dec. 27 (full series).
February 24 — Columnist-fest: liberal aims, illiberal means. Three variations on a theme, namely how progressive social goals aren’t always well served by handing ever-greater authority to those who run the legal process:
* Wendy Kaminer understands why feminists would rally behind the Violence Against Women Act, currently up before the Supreme Court in Brzonkala v. Virginia Tech, but wonders whether liberals should really be comfortable arguing for an expansive view of federal police power. “We need to combat sexual violence without making a federal case of it.” (“Sexual Congress”, American Prospect, Feb. 14).
* Stuart Taylor welcomes the idea of extending legal recognition in Vermont to same-sex relationships, but asks: should this advance really be put over by way of a unilateral assertion of power by the state’s Supreme Court? (“A Vote For Gay Marriage — But Not By Judicial Fiat”, National Journal, Feb. 21).
* William Raspberry agrees that loving relatives should be a part of kids’ lives, but still is mystified by the law under review in the Supreme Court’s pending Troxel v. Granville: “If you stipulate the mother’s parental fitness (as both sides seemed to do in last week’s questioning by the justices) then how can you insist that she bow to the grandparents’ desires — or even that she has to explain why she chooses not to?” (“Grandparents’ visitation rights case misses boat”, Detroit News, Jan. 18).
February 24 — House passes liability reforms. President Clinton is going to huff and puff and use his veto to blow down anything that looks like a shelter from the incursions of his good friends in the trial bar, which hasn’t deterred the House from passing two bills this month aimed at extending modest degrees of such protection to small businesses and manufacturers of long-lived capital goods. (“GOP makes little headway in reining in lawsuits”, AP/CNN, Feb. 22, link now dead). The small business bill would restrict punitive damages levied against enterprises with fewer than 25 employees to $250,000 or three times actual damages, whichever is less, and would require plaintiffs seeking punitive damages to show that a defendant acted with “willful misconduct and was flagrantly indifferent to the rights and safety of others.” (“House Passes Bill Shielding Small Businesses From Liability Suits”, DowJones.com, Feb. 16.) The durable-goods bill would bar suits against makers of factory equipment that were filed more than 18 years after the delivery of the equipment to its original user; it would not apply to workers who are ineligible for workers’ compensation. (Paul Barton, “House passes cap on makers’ liability”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 3). The two bills passed by almost identical margins — 221-193 for the small business bill, and 222-194 for the statute of repose bill — with about two dozen Democrats crossing over to join the GOP majority in favor, and about one dozen Republicans crossing the other way.
February 24 — Blaming good pilots. One of the first lawsuits arising from the Jan. 31 Alaska Airlines crash over the Pacific claims that “the pilots should have ‘immediately … land(ed) the aircraft upon first notice of difficulty in operation.’ … But the second-guessing, and the widow’s lawsuit, are wrong. The pilots did what they were supposed to: Analyze the situation, take corrective action, land as soon as practicable. Hurtling through the skies in a pressurized metal tube has its risks. Slapping the airline with a lawsuit won’t make those risks magically disappear. … The pilots were heroes, keeping their crippled plane over the ocean instead of slamming it into suburban Los Angeles.” (Phaedra Hise, “Aerial ambulance chasing”, Salon, Feb. 18) (more on overlawyered skies: Oct. 8, July 19, Dec. 1, Dec. 9, “Kingdom of the One-Eyed“, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Good Beer“)
February 23 — Crime does pay, cont’d. A federal judge last week refused to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit by family members of a bank robber killed in a spectacular televised shootout with police in North Hollywood, Calif. Emil Matasareanu and Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. “fired more than 1,200 rounds from automatic weapons during a 44-minute battle on Feb. 28, 1997. Both men died, and 11 officers and a half-dozen civilians were wounded.” Attorney Stephen Yagman, representing the family, alleges that police violated Matasareanu’s rights by deliberately “keeping paramedics away from him for an hour as he died on the street….The city has contended that paramedics were needed elsewhere and that authorities initially feared Matasareanu might be booby-trapped.” (“Judge allows lawsuit to go forward in North Hollywood shootout case”, AP/FindLaw, Feb. 16).
February 23 — “How’s the pool?” “It’s okay, but what’s amazing about it is that its construction predates massive lawsuits, so it actually has a deep end. Where most new Las Vegas pools are only three feet deep, this one goes to twelve feet. The diving board has been removed, however.” — from a review of the Frontier Hotel on the website CheapoVegas.com. Better hurry, though: the review advises that “The Frontier is scheduled to be demolished in the summer of 2000″.
February 23 — That Hager case. The Washington Post‘s David Segal, who covered the lawyer beat for three years and has now moved on to write about music, last month penned a valedictory column which mentioned one of his regrets: not having taken a harder look at the disciplinary process for D.C. lawyers and in particular “the tale of Mark Hager, the American University Law professor and sometime plaintiffs lawyer.
“He represented a pair of Virginia mothers who wanted to sue Warner Lambert, makers of a lice shampoo, for creating an environmental hazard and for failing to rid critters from their children’s heads. In an out-of-court deal, Warner Lambert offered refunds to the moms and some 90 other buyers of Nix shampoo, a sum that totaled less than $10,000. Hager and a partner, meanwhile, ended up splitting the $225,000 that Warner Lambert paid on condition that the lawyers not bring another, similar suit and — here’s the kicker — not tell their clients about the bargain. (Hager countered that the deal was legit, in part because it doesn’t prevent his clients from suing Warner Lambert in the future. He also said the moms’ demand for a toxic tort-style suit was unreasonable.)
“The moms filed an ethics grievance and a hearing before a committee of the D.C. Board of Professional Responsibility — which recommends disciplinary action — occurred in January. Not a peep has been heard from that committee since, even though it’s supposed to cough up a recommendation within 60 days.”
Concludes Segal: “That’s an outrage. If Washington lawyers want the trust of their clients and abiding respect from the rest of us, devising a more efficient policing mechanism might be a good start.” (Update May 3, 2001: disciplinary panel in Nov. 2000 called Hager’s conduct “shockingly outrageous” and recommended three-year suspension) (Update Jul. 19, 2003: Hager resigns AU post in April 2003).
SOURCES: David Segal, “Hearsay: Verdicts Rendered, a Beat Surrendered”, Washington Post, Jan. 17; David Segal, “Group Says Lawyer Made Secret Deal”, Washington Post, November 4, 1998, and Siobhan Roth, “American University Professor Faces Ethics Charges, Legal Times, Jan. 18, 1999, both reprinted at headlice.org site; “‘Settlement’ in lice shampoo case probed”, AP, Jan. 27, 1999, reprinted at “Safe 2 Use” commercial page; Goldie H. Gider, “Law Professor Faces Ethics Charges”, The Legal Reformer (HALT), Spring 1999 (second item); Deborah Kelly, “Lice infestations on the rise”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 29, 1997. In addition to publishing in such outlets as Monthly Review and Z Magazine, Prof. Hager has also distinguished himself for the vehemence of his attacks on liability reformers; see, for example, “Civil Compensation and Its Discontents: A Response to [Peter] Huber,” 42 Stanford Law Review 539 (1990) (not online).
February 23 — “Quadriplegic is given 7 years in prison for selling marijuana”. In another triumph for the drug war, a federal court has sentenced Louis E. Covar Jr., 51, to prison for seven years. Covar, a wheelchair user who cannot control his muscles beneath his shoulders, says he uses marijuana for medicinal purposes but police testified that he was selling it, in violation of probation terms for a conviction for marijuana possession last March. “According to the Department of Corrections, the special care Covar will need will cost $258.33 a day — or more than $660,000 if he serves his full seven years. A typical prisoner costs taxpayers $47.63 per day.” Federal judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said he was aware of the cost-of-custody problem but said Covar had showed “blatant disregard for the law”. (AP/Deseret News, Feb. 19).
February 23 —Overlawyered.com sets new visitor record. Yesterday was our busiest day ever, thanks in large part to the Wall Street Journal‘s generous editorial mention and the live link in its interactive edition.
February 22 — Welcome Wall Street Journal readers. In an editorial (“Virtual Sanity“) hailing the anti-food-scare Guest Choice Network, the Journal says that “overlawyered.com, a site run by Walter Olson to track the excesses of the lawsuit industry” is one of “a new breed of Websites… cropping up to keep tabs on the army of lawyers and activists”. (“Virtual Sanity”, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 22 (online subscription required)).
February 22 — Against medical advice. Ignoring the advice of both his own subordinates and the medical profession, President Clinton is expected today to unveil a package of measures aimed at combating “medical errors” among doctors, hospitals and other medical providers. The most controversial measure would subject providers to legal sanctions if they fail to report such errors. Since there’s often much doubt as to whether a particular incident constituted error and whether it contributed to a patient’s bad outcome, institutions could stay out of legal danger only by reporting as “error” many incidents that they might not be convinced are such. Despite supposed safeguards for privacy, the New York Times reports, it will often be possible for outsiders to identify the names of patients and doctors involved, and “public reports could be used to strengthen the hand of plaintiffs’ lawyers in malpractice lawsuits.”
The proposals follow a stampede set off by the release of a federally sponsored study which found high rates of avoidable injury to patients in the medical system. (For skeptical looks at the same Harvard-based researchers’ earlier allegations of an “epidemic” of medical malpractice, see Richard Anderson, 1996, and Peter Huber, 1990 and 1997). Both the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association have warned that, to quote the Times, “if doctors and hospital employees fear being sued…they will be reluctant to discuss the lessons that could be learned from their mistakes.” Also conspicuous by its absence is any evidence that federally managed health care facilities, such as Veterans’ Administration hospitals, are presently achieving more success at avoiding errors than private hospitals, or any demonstration of why Washington should be imposing untried changes on private hospital management when it has as yet done nothing to demonstrate the workability of the proposed changes in its own facilities.
Indeed, “[e]ven Mr. Clinton’s own advisers had suggested that the administration move cautiously.” Instead, Clinton — fresh from a $500,000 trial-lawyer-hosted fund-raiser in Dallas two weeks ago — overrode their advice. He also insisted that an additional principle be part of the package: no matter how many rights doctors and hospitals are made to give up, no jot or tittle of the right to sue doctors or hospitals for malpractice may be interfered with. (Robert Pear, “Clinton to Propose a System to Reduce Medical Mistakes”, New York Times, Feb. 22 (requires registration)).
P.S.: For the past year, having abruptly reversed its earlier stance of resisting the expansion of litigation, organized American medicine has been cheerleading the trial lawyers’ assault on HMOs; the Connecticut State Medical Society, for example, recently sponsored trial lawyer bigwig Richard Scruggs to come to the state to talk up the subject. This could be seen as a kind of experiment: with the trial lawyers receiving such extraordinary and unexpected assistance from their old enemy, would they ease off on their litigation war against the doctors themselves? The Clinton initiative provides a definitive answer to that question: no, they won’t. (Edward J. Croder, “$300 million lawyer revs up to take on HMOs” (Scruggs speech at Quinnipiac College School of Law), New Haven Register, Feb. 11 — not online)
February 19-21 — “Deaf group files lawsuit against movie theaters.” Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, eight hearing-impaired persons in Portland, Oregon have filed what aspires to the status of a national class action seeking to force three large cinema chains, Regal, Century, and Carmike, to install closed captioning devices for films in their theaters. The technology, called MoPix, displays captions in a patron’s cupholder; the plaintiffs say it costs about $12,000 a screen to install. A spokesman for the suit, attorney Dennis Steinman, said the country’s biggest cinema chain, Cinemark, was likely to be added soon to the case as a defendant. (Ashbel Green, “Suit seeks to aid deaf moviegoers”, The Oregonian, Feb. 4).
February 19-21 — Bountiful NYC taxpayers come through again. It happened in 1989: Driver Jack Goldberg, under the influence of heroin, cocaine and methadone, lost control of his car and ran onto a Brooklyn sidewalk, gravely injuring Linda Davis, who’d been waiting with her daughter and grandson to catch a bus. Pleading guilty to assault, Goldberg was sent to prison for two years. But the blame could hardly be allowed to stop there, especially not when a far deeper pocket was on hand. Mr. Goldberg proceeded to aver that he’d swerved to avoid a city sanitation truck that was entering the intersection against the light. This theory outraged city officials, who according to the New York Law Journal “contended that Mr. Goldberg admitted at his deposition that he did not recall even seeing the truck in the area and that he had swerved to avoid striking a boy who had run into the street half a block away.” Nonetheless, on December 16 a Kings County jury proceeded to find the city 23 percent culpable for the incident and hand down a $16 million verdict in the suit brought by Ms. Davis and her relatives; joint and several liability should do the rest. (“Verdicts and Settlements”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 28, not online).
February 19-21 — Harassment-law roundup. A new product called Disappearing Email is set to launch next month which automatically “shreds” and destroys email after a certain length of time as determined by company policy; the target market is companies worried that internal emails will be used against them by lawyers in harassment or other types of litigation. (“Email’s Vanishing Act”, Wired News, Feb. 7). Meanwhile, the Industry Standard takes a look at the widely publicized sexual harassment lawsuits filed by two employees against Juno, the Internet start-up. (Susan Orenstein, “What happened at Juno”, The Standard, Feb. 7). And at Intellectual Capital, reader discussion is in progress about Joan Kennedy Taylor’s book What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, excerpted briefly in this space in November. (Jaime Sneider, “Above the Law?”, Intellectual Capital, Feb. 17).
February 19-21 — Welcome Lucianne.com, Crikey.com.au readers. Readers of Lucianne.com, the popular news forum presided over by Zippergate stalwart Lucianne Goldberg, recently discussed our commentaries “Bill Clinton among friendly crowd” and “Thanks for the memories” (links now dead). And an influx of visitors from Australia over the last week or so owes much to our inclusion as a link on Crikey.com.au, an irreverent investigative site that covers media, government and business down under.
February 19-21 — “Motorists speed more, but fewer die”. When Congress did away with the national 55-mph highway speed limit, opponents called it a “killer bill”; Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety — a be-safe-or-else coalition backed by both insurance companies and the trial-lawyer-allied Ralph Nader complex — predicted that the move “will be the death knell for thousands of American men, women and children“. But in fact “the national crash fatality rate, determined by the number of fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles driven, has fallen by 11 percent since the United States lifted the national 55 mph speed limit in 1995″. (Tom Greenwood, “Motorists speed more, but fewer die”, Detroit News, Jan. 4; Brock Yates, “Just when you thought bigger was better”, Car and Driver, Oct. 1999, reprinted at Steve Hartford site).
February 19-21 — Update: Cayuga land claim. A Syracuse, N.Y. jury has recommended an amount of $36.9 million as appropriate compensation to the Cayuga Indian tribe for its sale of 64,015 acres to the state of New York two centuries ago. The sum was far below the $335 million sought by the Cayugas and below even the $51 million recommended by appraisers for the state, which was the defendant in the suit. Cayuga attorney Martin Gold lashed out at the ruling as “ridiculous…Apparently nine people didn’t pay attention to the evidence.” The 1795 and 1807 sales were recently declared invalid because they were not approved by the federal government, as required by law (see Feb. 1 commentary). Jim Memmott, “Verdict saddens Cayugas”, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Feb. 18.)
February 18 — Bush unveils legal reform plan. On the campaign trail last week, Texas Gov. George W. Bush unveiled proposals for reforming the civil justice system if he’s elected President. (Disclosure: this site’s editor has served as an unpaid advisor to the Bush campaign on the issue.) The proposals include: tougher sanctions for meritless lawsuits and motions; a “Fair Settlement Rule” under which parties who reject a bona fide settlement offer and then do worse at trial will be liable for the reasonable legal fees their opponents expended after the offer; curbs on lawyers’ power to steer actions into courts they view as favorable (“forum-shopping”); a “Client’s Bill of Rights” prescribing more disclosure about fees to be charged and enhanced supervision by federal courts of fees charged in the cases they oversee; and controls on unreasonable fees charged by lawyers representing government bodies. (“Bush proposes higher standards for lawyers”, Reuters/FindLaw, Feb. 9; campaign news release, Feb. 9; fact sheets on tort reform and on Texas record (PDF format); Morton Kondracke, “Bush’s Trial with the Trial Lawyers”, June 28, 1999 (reprinted at Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Houston site)).
February 18 — I see riches in your future. ABC has confirmed that it has paid $933,992 to an employee of the Psychic Services Network who sued the network over its 1993 airing of a secretly made videotape on its newsmagazine “PrimeTime Live”. Mark Sanders charged that ABC had ruined his reputation by covertly videotaping him and his colleagues working the telephones in a show aimed at depicting the call-a-psychic business as “a scam and illegitimate”. In 1994 a jury awarded Sanders $335,000 in compensatory and $300,000 in punitive damages, and the total sum owing has mounted through the accumulation of interest as ABC has pursued unsuccessful appeals. (Yahoo/AP, “ABC Pays Damages to Psychic Network”, Feb. 15, link now dead).
February 18 — Lawsuit reform helps Michigan taxpayers. The state’s payout in judgments and settlements, which had been running around $25 to $35 million a year, declined to $12.7 million last year. Democratic state attorney general Jennifer Granholm credited skillful legal work and good economic times for the favorable trend but also, significantly, acknowledged the helpful role of 1995 reforms which bolstered sovereign immunity and curbed the application of joint and several liability, the deep-pocket doctrine by which a defendant one percent responsible for an accident can be made to pay all the damages. (“Tort reform pays off” (editorial), Detroit News, Feb. 2).
February 18 — The trouble with bounty-hunting. “Porcupines [in New England] have never enjoyed the popular status of, say, the armadillo in Texas. They were particularly unpopular earlier in this century, when they returned to reforested areas ahead of their natural predators and consequently boomed. John Barrows, a district forester with the state of Vermont, recalls that Vermont used to offer a bounty of fifty cents for a set of porcupine ears, and in 1952 paid out $90,000. Remarkably, it still had a porcupine problem in 1953 and for several decades thereafter. Barrows explains: ‘There was a time when we thought the state had a lot of money, and a trapper who knew how to use his knife could get ten or twelve sets of ears out of a single animal.'” — from Richard Conniff, Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife (Henry Holt & Co., 1998).
February 17 — And so now everybody’s happy. “Last month, the Supreme Court decided not to review an appeals court decision that temporary Microsoft workers must receive the same retirement benefits, including discounted stock, as regular employees…. Already, some companies have reacted to the original Microsoft decision by getting rid of temporary workers before they can be considered permanent, lawyers said.” (David Leonhardt, “Who’s the Boss? Who’s a Worker?”, New York Times, Feb. 16) (& see letters, Dec. 20).
February 17 — Barrel pointing backward. “President Clinton enthusiastically backs the current wave of municipal lawsuits against the gun industry”, yet he’s also proposed giving $10 million in taxpayer money to some of the same manufacturers for the sake of developing so-called smart guns. Some litigation advocates are upset about the inconsistency, including Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, who says: “It makes the lawsuits seem like a charade.” Yes, now she’s getting the idea.
The litigation onslaught may in fact have retarded progress toward smart-gun technology. Colt’s Manufacturing Co. had been at work on a smart-gun venture but folded its effort late last year; the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Barrett quotes John Rigas, a partner in the company’s controlling owner, the New York investment group Zilkha & Co., as saying that “potential punitive damages scared away needed outside investors”. (Paul M. Barrett, “‘Smart’ Guns Trigger a Debate”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27 (requires online subscription).)
February 17 — Welcome Kausfiles.com readers. Mickey Kaus’s commentaries on politics, journalism and social policy, among the high points of Slate, are also collected on this freestanding website. He’s just added new features including a desktop-style assortment of columnist and policy links. Check out the ultrabrief descriptions (for this page: “Daily horror stories”.)
February 17 — The fine print. The Boston Globe has backed off at least temporarily from a short-lived effort to save money, trees and ink by reducing the type size of its articles, thus squeezing more onto a page. Readers had protested vociferously, and at least one threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act: “The Globe cannot simply refuse to serve readers with aging eyes and poor eyesight.” (Jack Thomas, “The incredible shrinking type irks Globe readers”, Boston Globe, Feb. 14, link now dead (via Romenesko, Media News)).
February 17 — Let your fingers do the suing. The Yellow Pages contain many entries for businesses like the A-ABC Locksmith Service and AAA Affordable Auto Glass, and now you can add to that list of eagerly promotional trade monickers the AAAA Legal Center, run by Detroit-area trial lawyer Robert D. Mouradian, though its website has not been updated since April 1999 and could use a spell-check.
February 16 — Welcome Fox News Channel visitors. Our editor was interviewed for a story on how the Americans with Disabilities Act may require the redesign of websites so as to provide “reasonable accommodation” to blind, deaf and other handicapped users. For more details, see his prepared statement presented to a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week; our Dec. 21 commentary, and our subpages on disabled-rights law and Internet law.
February 16 — Update: Connecticut tobacco-fee bonanza. Not long after Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal said last winter he had “no idea” whether law firms were going to rake in excessive fees representing the state in the tobacco settlement (see Feb. 3 commentary), a total fee haul was announced: a handsome $65 million. As previously reported in this space, the three lucky firms selected to handle the in-state work included Blumenthal’s own former law firm of Silver, Golub & Teitell of Stamford. The other two firms? One was Carmody & Torrance of Waterbury, whose managing partner James K. Robertson is personal counsel and counselor to the state’s governor, John Rowland. And the third was Stamford’s Emmett & Glander, whose name partner, Kathryn Emmett, happens to be married to partner David S. Golub of Silver, Golub & Teitell. “I know how it [looks]”, concedes Golub.
A number of other firms that wanted to be considered for the work were cut out; Robert Reardon of New London, a former president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, couldn’t get even get in the door for a meeting. Though Attorney General Blumenthal was later to disclaim knowledge of the firms’ fee entitlements, the Connecticut Law Tribune reports that he “was extraordinarily active in the litigation and settlement — more so than any other attorney general”. (Thomas Scheffey, “Winning the $65 Million Gamble”, Connecticut Law Tribune, Dec. 8; “After the Lion’s Share”, Feb. 5).
February 16 — Disabled test-accommodation roundup. Salon is the latest to notice this issue. While the share of students getting extra time on the SAT — typically an extra hour and a half on a three-hour exam — is still only 1.9 percent nationwide, “the number jumps to nearly 10 percent in some New England prep schools and wealthy districts in California.” Michael Scott Moore, “Buying Time”, Salon, Feb. 9). AP reports that the percentage of college freshmen describing themselves as disabled more than tripled between 1978 and 1998, from less than 3 percent to 9.4 percent. Forty-one percent of the disabled freshmen in 1998 identified their impediment as a learning disability, up from 15 percent ten years earlier. More chances to attend college for kids who’d have been classified as disabled all along — or just more students being classified as disabled? (“Learning Disabled Advance in School”, AP/FindLaw, Feb. 10). In a case closely watched by college officials, a Boston College senior with attention deficit disorder and a 3.35 grade point average “has sued the Law School Admissions Council, charging the national testing giant violated her rights by denying her extra time to take the all-important exam.” (Andrea Estes, “BC student sues test firm: Wants more time for law school exam”, Boston Herald, Jan. 12).