February 8-10 — Crumbs from the table. “A Las Vegas jury has found that two attorneys committed malpractice in their representation of a brain-damaged man in a personal injury suit. It awarded the man, Jason Nault, $3.3 million. The lawyers had reached a $17 million settlement that gave Nault only $2.5 million — compared with $6.6 million to his wife, from whom he’s now divorced, and $6.8 million to the lawyers.” Attorney W. Randall Mainor of Las Vegas’ Mainor Harris, who with partner Richard Harris was found liable, “insists that the ruling throws a wrench in attorneys’ personal injury work.” However, attorney Gary Logan, who represented Nault on the malpractice claim, “said of Mainor and Harris, ‘This kind of conduct is the reason people hate lawyers.’ … Among the breaches in professional conduct that Logan alleged — some of which were raised at trial and some that were barred — were that another attorney, Joe Rolston, received a $2.2 million referral fee without ever receiving consent of his brain-damaged client, Nault.” Mainor “said that the fee paid to Rolston was an association fee, not a contingency fee.” Nault’s parents began caring for him in 1997. (Elizabeth Amon, “Malpractice Suit Tags Las Vegas Attorneys”, National Law Journal, Feb. 6). Update Jan. 1, 2005: Nevada Supreme Court reverses jury verdict.
February 8-10 — Overlawyered film sets. According to intellectual property expert Larry Lessig, moviemakers “must now ‘clear’ every image that appears in their films, obtaining permission even for minor items like posters in a dorm room, the advertisement on a passing truck, or a can of Coke in someone’s hands. It used to be, Lessig reports, you only had to do this if the item was immediately recognizable; now you have to do it if it shows up in a single stop-motion frame. Even the designers of buildings and furniture included in movie scenes are trying to claim the right to stop films that contain images of their products without permission.” (Glenn Reynolds, “Rights and wrongs”, TechCentralStation.com, Feb. 6).
February 8-10 — “Judge orders God to break up into smaller Deities”. The Onion on antitrust law, and very funny, too (Jan. 30). While we’re at it: James V. DeLong of the Competitive Enterprise Institute comments on the proposed Microsoft settlement (Jan. 25).
February 8-10 — 2,000,000 + pages served on Overlawyered.com. Exact figures are not available because the more comprehensive of our counter programs has gone on the fritz, but we think our tally passed two million pages late last year and now stands above two and a quarter million. Thanks for your support!
February 6-7 — Vandal’s dad sues store over blaze. “The father of a teen who helped spark the fatal Father’s Day blaze has filed a $2 million lawsuit against the store where the fire started.” Silverio Moreno’s “son and another boy tipped over a loose-lidded gallon of gasoline while spraying graffiti behind the store.” According to columnist Andrea Peyser, the younger child “told investigators that when Moreno came looking for his son, and saw what the boys did, he said: ‘Don’t say anything about it.’ Now dad “is suing the elderly owner of Long Island General Supply Co. for $2 million – claiming the store ‘carelessly and negligently permitted the building to explode,’ causing Moreno permanent injuries.” The suit has raised the ire of some widows of NYC firefighters killed in the blaze, although they themselves, it should be noted, “plan to file negligence suits against the hardware store in the future and they have not ruled out taking action against the city, said their lawyer, Michael Block.” (Jessie Graham, “Outrage at Suit By Firestarter’s Dad”, New York Post, Feb. 1; Andrea Peyser, “Of All the Gall! His Kid Is a Vandal — And He’s Suing?”, New York Post, Feb. 1). (DURABLE LINK)
February 6-7 — Chickens are next. In the latest stage of its campaign to use litigation to do an end run around what it considers overly permissive federal environmental agencies, the Sierra Club is targeting Kentucky farmers who raise chicken under contract with Tyson Foods (see Dec. 7, 2000, on hog farming). The suit contends that broiler operations should be counted as industrial emitters of ammonia gas because the individual chickens … well, it’s too indelicate to explain. (James Bruggers, “Sierra Club vows suit over chicken farms and dust they produce”, Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 5).
February 6-7 — Your home, their right to enter. Suburban Naperville, Ill. has emerged as the latest target in disabled rights activists’ campaign to require newly built private houses to be wheelchair-accessible — and if you’re a new homebuyer who doesn’t care for the cost and design trade-offs implicit in that, tough, you shouldn’t consider the house yours just because you’re the one paying for it (see Dec. 4, 2001, on Santa Monica) (Karen Mellen, “Making all new houses ‘visitable'”, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 5)(& see update Mar. 6)(& letter to the editor, Apr. 11).
February 6-7 — “Every Man a Cyber Crook”. “Shortly after it enacted the federal computer crime law, Congress amended it to allow victims to sue their attackers in federal court for damages. It is now proving to be a costly mistake. … in practice, private litigants have rarely used the civil provisions to pursue computer hackers, who, after all, usually don’t have very deep pockets. Instead, unfettered by the Department of Justice’s interpretation of federal law, litigants have used the computer crime laws to go after computer hardware manufacturers for product liability, Internet companies for software design, spammers and protesters for commercial and other protected First Amendment speech, and website operators for the installation and tracking of computer cookies.
“These unintended uses of the computer crime statute, and the court’s permitting the suits to proceed in many cases, creates a genuine risk that ordinary business activity and protected speech will be deemed to rise to the level of a computer crime, subject to federal prosecution.” (Mark Rasch, SecurityFocus.com, Jan. 7).
February 4-5 — “‘Let’s Roll’ Trademark Battle Is On”. Why’d she have to hire that lawyer? No sooner does the widow of Flight 93 hero Todd Beamer set up a foundation to honor his memory than its lawyer announces that he’s having it apply for a trademark on the now-famous phrase “Let’s Roll”, so that anyone who wants to use the words on hats or t-shirts will have to fork over a royalty. Since September 11 numerous other individuals have also sought to copyright the phrase, although it was in common use before that date. (AP/Las Vegas Sun, Feb. 1).
February 4-5 — Element in $290,000 award: failure to meet Messiah in person. Dateline Salt Lake City: “A jury awarded $290,000 to two women who said they were deceived by a fundamentalist church whose leaders promised to produce Jesus Christ in the flesh. The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Saints of the Last Days was ordered Monday to pay $270,000 to Kaziah Hancock and more than $20,000 to Cindy Stewart for fraud, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” In exchange for substantial financial contributions from Hancock and Stewart, church founder Jim Harmston had allegedly promised the women various benefits including “membership in heaven’s elite and the chance to meet Christ on earth”. (AP/Boston Globe, Jan. 30)(see June 6, 2001).
February 4-5 — Stop, they said. An assistant professor of political science at the University of Manitoba is reportedly “fighting a $40 traffic ticket in provincial court by launching a constitutional challenge of stop signs — claiming the message they convey is too vague. In what may be one of the strangest legal arguments ever heard in the halls of the downtown Law Courts, Rod Yellon is seeking to prove the word ‘STOP’ isn’t a sufficient warning to motorists.” (excerpt said to be from the Winnipeg Free Press; quoted in Fresh Hell blog, Jan. 5).
February 4-5 — Reparations madness: gypsy survivors sue IBM. Representatives of European gypsies orphaned in the Holocaust want money and an apology from IBM because one of its German subsidiaries, taken over by the Nazi government before World War II, sold punch-card machines used to administer the concentration camp system. (“Gypsies Sue IBM, Claiming Machines Helped Nazis”, AP/Law.com, Feb. 1).
February 1-3 — “Aborigines claim kangaroo copyright”. “In Australia, a group of Aborigines has lodged a high court writ, seeking to stop the government from using the kangaroo and the emu on the national coat of arms. The Aboriginal activists say the representation of the animals — which they regard as sacred totems — is a breach of copyright.” They accuse the Commonwealth of Australia of cultural theft. (BBC, Jan. 29).
February 1-3 — Suicide plane crash blamed on acne drug. When a Florida 15-year-old crashed a plane into a Tampa skyscraper, press accounts were quick to link the incident to the boy’s prescription for the drug Accutane. “As only a handful of media outlets bothered to report a week later, an autopsy showed no trace of the drug in the boy’s system. … If you go to a Web site with an innocuous-sounding name like http://www.accutane_suicide_help.com/ you’ll find you’ve actually come across a lawyer-referral service.” (Michael Fumento, “Bumps in the Night”, Reason Online, Jan. 23; “Tampa Crash Pilot Had Acne Drug Prescription”, AP/Washington Post, Jan. 9). “Rep. [Bart] Stupak’s [D-Mich.] hearings and the recent press stories have all left out one set of voices: the millions of Accutane users who have benefited from the drug.” (Jaime Sneider, “Skin Deep”, Jan. 23) Update Apr. 18: family sues.
February 1-3 — King Cake figurine menace averted. Columnist James Lileks recalls how things used to be with the famous King Cake baked in New Orleans for Mardi Gras: “Since they were the Real Thing, brought directly from N’Awlins, they had small plastic baby Jesuses (Jesii?) embedded in their doughy redoubts. Whoever cracked a molar on the extruded holy infant was obliged to buy the next King Cake. In these litigious days, the store-bought cakes cannot hide the child lest someone choke and sue, so the package explains the tradition, says that a coin can be substituted for the plastic baby — and the coin is sitting ON TOP of the cake, meaning no one will be stupid enough to take that piece.” (“The Bleat”, Lileks.com, Jan. 29).
February 1-3 — International tobacco suits: not quite such easy pickings. U.S. judges have so far not been particularly inclined to loot and expropriate the nation’s tobacco industry for the benefit of such foreign governments as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Ecuador, which with help from some entrepreneurial-sounding U.S.-based lawyers have sought to duplicate the 1998 feat of the state attorneys general. (Matthew Haggman, “Brazilian City Joins List of Foreign Entities Suing U.S. Cigarette Makers”, Miami Daily Business Review, Jan. 11). For details on the suit filed by that very needy and deserving claimant, the government of Saudi Arabia, see Nov. 16, 2000 and Dec. 10, 2001.
* Britain: “Five market traders — the so-called metric martyrs — have lost their High Court battle for the legal right to trade in pounds and ounces.” (see Dec. 15, 2001) (“Metric martyrs lose battle for pounds and ounces”, Ananova.com, Feb. 18)
* The Taco Bell chain has settled on undisclosed terms a lawsuit charging it with financial responsibility after several of its employees partied on their own time and one got into a fatal car crash; the suit charged that the employees had discussed liquor acquisition while working together at the restaurant (see Nov. 29, 2001) (Jeff Arnold, “Suit Against Taco Bell After Fatal Wreck Resolved”, Fort Smith (Ark.) Times-Record, Jan. 4; KTHV-TV (Little Rock), “Taco Bell Settles a Lawsuit Accusing Them of Contributing to the Death of a Teen”, Jan. 7).
* “Pacifiers, glow sticks and other paraphernalia associated with ‘rave’ parties cannot be banned from the gatherings,” federal judge Thomas Porteous has ruled in New Orleans, despite prosecutors’ contention that the funmakers are linked to drug use (see June 28, 2001) (“Rave Party Items Can’t be Banned Says Federal Judge”, WWL-TV (New Orleans), Feb. 4).
February 20-21 — Trial lawyer smackdown! According to Roll Call, Pascagoula, Miss. tort tycoon Dickie Scruggs has threatened never again to support Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) because of Edwards’ unfair treatment of federal appeals court nominee Charles Pickering. “If Scruggs follows through on his stated mission, it would deal a serious financial blow to Edwards, himself a former trial lawyer who has relied heavily on the legal industry to underwrite his burgeoning national ambitions. … While Scruggs himself has not been a direct financial backer of Edwards, lawyers have been the Senator’s single largest backer, and many of Scruggs’ friends are among Edwards’ supporters. In the 1998 election cycle he received $905,280 from lawyers and law firms, the fourth most of any candidate in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.” (Paul Kane, “Edwards’ Tactics Draw Ire”, Roll Call, Feb. 18).
February 20-21 — Firehouse blues. Near Brighton, England, “A 5ft 1in firewoman who is too short to carry out some of her duties yesterday claimed sex discrimination after she was taken off active duty. … after a number of incidents in which she was not tall enough to handle equipment.” Katie Reid, 31, complained to an industrial tribunal that the East Sussex Fire Authority was sexually discriminatory in having “failed to accommodate her height when designing equipment and in the operation of fire appliances.” (Thomas Penny, “Tiny firewoman sues her brigade”, Daily Telegraph, Jan. 30) (via Bonehead of the Day). And authorities in Anchorage, Alaska have ordered the removal of girlie magazines from firehouses, explaining that the city could be at risk of losing a lawsuit if it lets them stay; a former firefighters union president said he was told that even tamer fare like Maxim has to go. (“Anchorage tells fire halls to eliminate risqué magazines”, JuneauEmpire.com, Feb. 18). (DURABLE LINK)
February 20-21 — “Bush Budget Surprise: $25M for Tobacco Suit”. Appalling: as part of a big increase sought for the budget of the Justice Department’s Civil Division (from $170 million to $240 million), the Bush administration has bowed to its enemies and endorsed the Clinton administration’s lawless federal expenditure recoupment suit against tobacco companies. Who knew John Ashcroft and the Bush White House were this easy to push around? (Vanessa Blum, Legal Times, Feb. 15). Plus: we highly recommend political scientist Martha Derthick’s new book on the tobacco litigation, Up in Smoke: From Legislation to Litigation in Tobacco Politics (order it from CQ Press). Derthick, professor emerita at U.Va. and also with the Brookings Institution for many years, assembles a truly damning indictment of the ways tobacco lawyers and state attorneys general managed to usurp powers constitutionally reserved to lawmakers. (DURABLE LINK)
February 18-19 — “The $200 Billion Miscarriage of Justice”. Best article we’ve seen in quite a while on the asbestos outrage: “the ultimate mass farce … The avalanche of new claims being brought by ever less impaired plaintiffs alleging ever more marginal medical conditions caused by ever more fleeting exposures to asbestos dust has triggered a new wave of bankruptcies … Like the employees of Enron, employees of [newly bankrupted big companies like Owens Corning and Federal-Mogul] have seen their retirement savings vanish in a flash. … But those employees’ losses have thus far gone unbemoaned by Congress.” (Roger Parloff, Fortune, March 4).
February 18-19 — Overprotecting the kids. “A significant body of research evidence now indicates that there has been a drastic decline in children’s outdoor activity and unsupervised play. For example, it has been calculated that the free play range of children — the radius around the home to which children can roam alone — has, for nine-year-olds in the UK, shrunk to a ninth of what it was in 1970. Evidence also shows that more and more of children’s activities are being organised or supervised by adults.” Yet the most often cited reasons for parental anxiety, road accidents and abduction by strangers, are rarer than ever.
“Local authorities, educational staff or outdoor activity instructors are too often blamed for accidents — which can only make them more cautious about providing challenging activities for children. There have been a rising number of litigations against providers of play facilities and organisers of adventure pursuits. Perhaps most damaging is that a climate has been created in which all unsupervised play is regarded as high risk, and parents or teachers who allow it are seen as irresponsible.” (Jenny Cunningham, “Play on”, Spiked Online, Jan. 3) (via InstaPundit).
February 18-19 — “Toyota buyers’ suit yields cash — for lawyers”. Under a newly approved class action settlement, thousands of customers will get $1,200 coupons, rather than cash, from a Memphis Toyota dealership charged with cheating buyers. “The lawyers who brought the suit — Richard Fields, Saul Belz and Earle Schwarz — get $1.3 million in legal fees.” Some customers have expressed indignation that in order to get any of their money back they have to patronize the dealership again. “The outcome also may provide fodder for federal lawmakers, including Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.), who are attempting to push reforms of the class-action system. … ‘Justice is there for the victim and the defendant and not just for the lawyers to make money,’ Bryant said Thursday.” (Louis Graham, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Feb. 15).
February 18-19 — Lawyers swallow lion’s share in estate dispute. A contest over the A$154,000 estate left by a 44-year-old Australian has ended with the following resolution: the decedent’s original family is to get $22,000, his live-in male partner is to get $10,000, $10,000 will go to the cost of selling his house, and lawyers and their expenses have swallowed up the remaining $112,000. (“Battle over gay partner’s estate won by lawyers”, AAP/The Age (Melbourne), Feb. 13).
February 15-17 — Kaiser Aluminum bankrupt. North America’s third-biggest aluminum producer “filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, blaming depressed prices and asbestos litigation”. (“Kaiser Aluminum: Prices, asbestos suits force Chapter 11 filing”, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 13; “The Job-Eating Asbestos Blob” (editorial), Wall Street Journal/ OpinionJournal.com, Jan. 23).
February 15-17 — “The Enron mythos”. The story of the energy company’s collapse has been propelled by the conventions of pack journalism, with the New York Times the worst offender (see Kausfiles.com, scroll to Jan. 25). Employee benefits expert Tom Veal, on his Stromata site, dispels a few of the widely circulated misconceptions — check out for example Feb. 2, on the sinister-sounding practice of “locking down” 401(k) plans. (Jan. 15-date). The Times professes to be scandalized at the discovery that many, many investment banks and accounting firms cooperate with big-company clients to structure transactions in ways that dress up their balance sheets: “Actual accounting fraud may or may not be demonstrated in the Enron case — although media and political hysteria makes finding the truth difficult. … But this much is clear: The more widespread the Enron practices are shown to be, the more likely they were NOT malevolent.” (“Robert Musil”, Man Without Qualities blog, Feb. 14 (and see other entries))(& see Mar. 6).
February 15-17 — “‘Preserving’ History at Bayonet Point”. Yes, historic preservation of old buildings is a worthy goal, but the owner of an 1874 home in Midland, Mich. isn’t convinced it should be accomplished through legal compulsion: “One of my neighbors is an 85-year-old woman who has lived in her home for 35 years. She found working with the Historic District Commission (HDC) so distressing that she decided to live with the ongoing damage caused by roof leaks rather than seek approval for correcting the problem. ‘I will let my house fall down before I deal with those people again,’ she commonly says. Score one for the history police, but not for history.” (Paul Arends, Mackinac Institute, Dec. 3).
February 15-17 — Omit a peripheral defendant, get sued for legal malpractice. Here’s a classic way the system feeds on itself, threatening to punish lawyers if they hesitate before pushing lawsuits in cases of less than clear-cut liability: “A New Jersey appeals court reinstated a legal malpractice claim Dec. 27 against a firm whose medical negligence suit against a doctor prescribing tetracycline failed to include a challenge to a 1963 manufacturer warning about the drug’s side effects. The court ruled the adequacy of the warning has never been settled as a matter of law in New Jersey, and a jury can decide whether the lawyers committed malpractice for not raising it.” (Henry Gottlieb, “Malpractice Case Reinstated Against Lawyers for Not Suing Drug Maker”, New Jersey Law Journal, Jan. 4).
February 15-17 — Welcome bloggers. Among webloggers who link to us, besides biggies InstaPundit, Mickey Kaus, Virginia Postrel, and Andrew Sullivan, are: MBaceron, Breaching the Web, Despatches from Flyover Country, Gene Hoffman, Libertarian Rant, Megan McArdle, Sean McCray, Bob Owen, and Kyle Still, among others.
February 13-14 — Didn’t know cinema seats retracted. Australia: “A teacher’s aide who was unaware cinema seats retracted has won her case against Hoyts cinemas after hurting herself at a trip to the movies. The win could force cinemas, theatres, sports stadiums and even Sydney Opera House to warn the public of the possible dangers of their seating. … While sitting down in the cinema, the child she was caring for became rowdy. [Plaintiff Diane] Burns got up to calm him down, unaware, she claims, that her seat retracted after she left it.” Burns was described as “not a regular filmgoer”. (Sarah Crichton, “Warning: movie seats can harm your health”, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 9).
February 13-14 — British Telecom claims to own hyperlinks. Hey, this is getting serious! “A British company claimed in federal court Monday that it owns the patent on hyperlinks — the single-click conveniences that take a Web surfer from one Internet page to another — and should get paid for their daily use by millions of people. But a federal judge with a laptop on her desk warned that it may be difficult to prove that a patent filed in 1976, more than a decade before the World Wide Web was created, somehow applies to modern computers.” (Jim Fitzgerald, “British Company Claims Patent on Hyperlinks”, AP/Law.com, Feb. 12; Michelle Delio, “Judge Dubious About Link Patent”, Wired News, Feb. 11; “Why This Link Patent Case Is Weak”, Feb. 12). Update Oct. 1-2: court dismisses case.
February 13-14 — Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes: rough divorce predisposed him to hire hitman. After Bryan Boyd McGann’s wife filed for divorce, he “ranted and raved” to a police informant for months about his desire to have her killed, then met with a supposed hitman and agreed on a $10,000 murder-for-hire contract. At trial for solicitation of capital murder, McGann attempted to introduce the expert testimony of a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, to support the theory that the stress of the divorce had made him more susceptible to being entrapped by police into such a scheme. Asked whether a normal, law-abiding citizen might under some circumstances be induced to pay money to a hitman who had promised to kill his wife, Grigson testified, “Absolutely …. Even though you’re a law abiding citizen, whenever you’re into a very nasty divorce or a very contested child custody case, your strongest emotions are — are going to be stimulated.” The court disallowed the doctor’s testimony. (David J. Rubin, J.D., “Psychiatrist Claims Divorce Is Deadly”, Forensic Panel Letter, Aug. 20, 2001) (appellate opinion, Texas v. McGann, Sept. 14, 2000 (PDF format)).
February 13-14 — Defend yourself in print and we’ll sue. The Nike Corporation had no sooner published advertisements defending its overseas labor practices than it was sued by a freelance lawyer, under the state’s “private attorney general” laws, for supposed inaccuracies which violated a state law against unfair business practices and false advertising. The case is now pending before the California Supreme Court. Writes a reader: “Amazing! Take out an ad arguing your own side of a public debate and get sued by a ‘private attorney general” looking for a bounty.'” (Mike McKee, “Nike Ads Not Actionable, California Justices Hint”, The Recorder, Feb. 8).
February 11-12 — New Yorkers officially back to normal. At least in one way, they’re suing like mad: Dana Gross of Manhattan is seeking $10 million in compensatory and $10 million in punitive damages against Ticketmaster and Madison Square Garden, saying that $100 tickets to a Michael Jackson concert (she bought six) had bad locations and obstructed views. The case seeks class action status (Dareh Gregorian, “‘Tick’ed-off Jacko Fan Sues for $20M”, New York Post, Feb. 8). (Update Oct. 23, 2004: judge allows suit to move forward as class action). “A Long Island woman who sued her former church for $4 million, claiming she suffered serious injuries when a minister pushed her to the floor while trying to bless her, settled her case yesterday for $80,000. … [Her lawyer Andrew] Siben said the woman was unavailable to discuss her case because the Almighty told her not to comment. … ‘If God told her not to speak, she’s not going to violate that'”. (Kieran Crowley, “80G from L.I. church heals pain in the apse”, New York Post, Feb. 5). And: “From rescue workers who say they have lung problems to business owners who say their shops were damaged, 1,300 people have given notice they may sue New York City for a total of $7.18 billion over the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. … The vast majority are from firefighters who say the city gave them inadequate respiratory protection at the smoldering trade center site.” (Michael Weissenstein, “1,300 People Give Notice of Intent to Sue New York City”, AP/Law.com, Feb. 8).
February 11-12 — “Congress Looks to Change Class Action System”. Nationwide class actions, unless they are very small, belong in federal courts: “In addition to giving judges more leeway over settlements or awards, the Class Action Fairness Act 2001 would move all cases involving people in more than one state seeking $2 million or more in damages into federal court from the state courts.” (Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, “Congress Looks to Change Class Action System”, FoxNews.com, Feb. 7).
February 11-12 — Columnist-fest. All first-timers:
* “[C]opyright protection for ‘Let’s roll?’ If they get it, I’m going to register ‘Hurry up,’ ‘Pick up your socks’ and ‘Why didn’t you go before we left home?'” (Cory Farley, “Let’s roll right into court”, Reno Gazette-Journal, Feb. 9)(see Feb. 4).
* Upstate New York outdoors columnist J. Michael Kelly is unimpressed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s campaign against the Daisy airgun, saying that CPSC really seems to be objecting to features that are industry standards: “Gravity-feed magazines, for example, have been used in BB guns for more than 100 years.” (“BB gun recall appears suspicious”, Syracuse Post-Standard, Dec. 30)(see Dec. 21).
* The plaintiffs in New York Times v. Tasini acted like they were doing freelance writers some great favor by establishing that publications could not include their work in electronic databases such as Nexis without their explicit permission. It wasn’t such a great favor in practice: “Faced with the time-consuming and expensive chore of tracking down everybody who might have rights to the articles in their databases, publishers are just taking the articles out.” (Linda Seebach, “Writers win battle and everyone loses”, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Feb. 2).
* Stop the presses, an Ellen Goodman column we agree with (on the stacked presidential bioethics panel headed by Leon Kass): “Cure or quest for perfection?”, Boston Globe, Jan. 24. For more on the panel, see Nick Gillespie, “Birthmarks and Bioethics”, Reason, Jan. 18; Jerome Groopman, “Science Fiction”, The New Yorker, Feb. 4; Virginia Postrel’s Dynamist.com, many entries in recent weeks; and Jonathan Rauch, “Therapeutic Cloning: Why Congress Should Butt Out”, National Journal, Dec. 15, reprinted at Reason.com.
February 11-12 — Setback for Lemelson estate. “Hundreds of companies facing infringement suits by inventor Jerome Lemelson’s estate won a victory Thursday when a federal appeals court ruled that unreasonable delay in prosecuting a patent may prevent its enforcement.” The panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was split 2-1. Foes of Lemelson patent claims (see May 10, 2001) complain that he filed many “submarine” patent claims which he did not pursue as inventions but which surfaced decades later in the form of royalty demands as companies opened up new technologies (Brenda Sandburg, “Lemelson Foes Win Key Patent Ruling”, The Recorder, Jan. 29).
February 27-28 — Aerobics studio mustn’t favor the svelte. “In one of the first cases under San Francisco’s ‘fat and short’ law, a 240-pound fitness enthusiast has filed a discrimination complaint with the city against a leading exercise firm that won’t let her be a company aerobics teacher.” Jazzercise Inc. thinks Jennifer Portnick, at size 16-18, “looks too heavy to be a good role model for exercise buffs,” but Portnick’s supporters say the important thing is that she is fit enough to teach the class. (Elizabeth Hernandez, “240-pound San Francisco woman rejected as aerobics teacher alleges bias”, San Francisco Chronicle/ Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 26)(see Dec. 8, 2000). Update May 10-12: Portnick wins settlement.
February 27-28 — The thrill of it all: plaintiffs win 28 cent coupon. “Food Lion customers who held an MVP [store discount] card between 1995 and 1998 have a 28-cent rebate coming their way as a result of a class-action lawsuit.” Not answered in the article is the burning question: how much more than 28 cents are the lawyers going to get? (“Food Lion MVP customers to get tiny rebate”, AP/Raleigh News & Observer, Feb. 24).
February 27-28 — Ford didn’t push pedal extenders, suit says. A lawsuit at trial in Louisville, Ky., accuses Ford Motor of not promoting and publicizing pedal extenders as a safety boon for drivers of short stature. “If the company were to tout the adjusters’ benefit in helping prevent air bag injuries, it could be open to more lawsuits if a driver is hurt or killed by an air bag while using it.” Ford offers the popular extenders as a convenience feature without stressing their safety aspect. (“Lawsuit faults Ford on safety issue”, AP/Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 19; AP/Auto.com, Feb. 18)(& letter to the editor, Apr. 11)
February 27-28 — Milberg faces second probe. “Already the subject of a grand jury investigation in Los Angeles, New York-based Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach is also facing scrutiny over its relationship with a high-ranking political figure in Philadelphia. Both state and federal authorities are looking into whether Philadelphia City Controller Jonathan Saidel received consulting fees from two law firms — one of which is Milberg Weiss — in exchange for helping the firms win city contracts.” (Jason Hoppin, “Milberg Weiss Faces Questions on Second Front”, The Recorder, Feb. 26).
February 27-28 — Jail for schoolyard taunts? In Hastings, Minn., prosecutor James Backstrom has announced “one of the toughest juvenile-justice policies in the nation: School bullies will go to jail.” Subject to the policy are not only kids who violently lay hands on classmates but also those who “intimidate, harass, pick a fight on the playground or the bus … Mr. Backstrom wants those who are at least 13 years old to hear a cell door click behind them. … The jail-for-bullies policy has been in effect since last spring here in Dakota County.” Local prosecutors complain, however, that some judges are undercutting the policy’s intent by taking into account such mitigating factors as whether a youngster’s misbehavior was provoked. (“New plan to put bullies behind bars”, Los Angeles Times/Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 26).
February 27-28 — Welcome Sunday Times (London) readers. We’re mentioned in Andrew Sullivan’s article on the journalistic impact of weblogs (“A Blogger Manifesto”, Sunday Times (London), Feb. 24, reprinted at AndrewSullivan.com).
February 25-26 — European workplace notes. “A French court has ruled that a ‘workplace accident’ claimed the life of an electrician who overdosed on vodka while drinking with colleagues in Russia. The unnamed 44-year-old Frenchman died of alcohol poisoning after a night of heavy drinking with Russian colleagues in Nalchik, southern Russia, three years ago.” (“Vodka death ruled ‘industrial accident'”, BBC, Feb. 18). In County Cavan, Ireland, a “piggery manager who claimed he had suffered deafness as a result of the noise of squealing pigs settled his action against the piggery owner.” (“And this little piggy …. missed his day in court”, Irish Independent, Feb. 19). And in Kent, England, “a dyslexic banker branded ‘Trebor’ by his boss — his Christian name spelled backwards — has been awarded damages of £95,000 by an employment tribunal.” (David Sapsted, “Sacked dyslexic awarded £95,000”, Daily Telegraph, Feb. 22).
February 25-26 — Fen-phen: gold standard indeed. The lead plaintiffs’ lawyers in the fen-phen diet drug litigation want a court to award them $567 million in fees for work negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement, claiming their efforts set the “gold standard” for devising a mass tort “mega-settlement”. Besides, it’s peanuts when you consider that plaintiffs who opted out “have racked up more than $8 billion in settlements, leading to more than $2.8 billion in fees for their lawyers.” The brief also alleges that drug manufacturer American Home Products “paid its attorneys about $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion in fees and costs for defense of the diet drug cases.” (Shannon P. Duffy, “Fen-Phenomenal”, The Legal Intelligencer, Feb. 21).
February 25-26 — “Drunken Driver’s Widow Wins Court’s OK To Sue Carmaker”. New York’s highest court has ruled that the widow of a Westchester County man killed in a crash of his VW Jetta with more than twice the legal amount of alcohol in his system can nonetheless sue the German automaker. In a 10-page dissent, Justice Albert Rosenblatt wrote that the “majority’s rationale … invites people injured as a result of their own seriously unlawful acts to blame others and recover damages previously prohibited”. (Kenneth Lovett, New York Post, Feb. 20).
February 25-26 — “PETA Says It Will Sue New Jersey Over Deer/Car Accident”. Two activists with the extremist animal rights outfit were driving along the New Jersey Turnpike when a deer (lamentably heedless of their rights) darted out in front of their vehicle, and the ensuing crash caused considerable property damage. Now they have sent “a notice to the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife declaring their intent to sue the state of New Jersey for contributing to the accident through their deer management practices,” the theory being that the state is too willing to cater to the hunters who reduce the deer herd — no, it doesn’t make any sense to us either. (AnimalRights.net (Brian Carnell), Feb. 18)(& see Nov. 29, 2001).
February 22-24 —USA Today on slavery reparations. The story comes close to acknowledging that the legal basis for the impending lawsuits is so shoddy that their only real settlement value comes from the hope of inflicting bad publicity on companies and other defendants willing to pay to make it stop. So what does Gannett/USA Today, itself a likely defendant, do? It awards the lawyers another ton of publicity against named companies. Makes sense, right? Note that Willie Gary now claims the lawyers’ “work is likely to be done pro bono“, which is a very different story from what he said not too long ago (see Dec. 22, 2000) (James Cox, “Activists challenge corporations that they say are tied to slavery; Team of legal and academic stars pushes for apologies and reparations”, USA Today, Feb. 21). (DURABLE LINK)
February 22-24 — Role of the oath. We must take issue with Andrew Sullivan (“The Dish”, Feb. 21), who thinks it’s okay for President Bush to sign a substantially unconstitutional campaign finance bill on the expectation that the Supreme Court will throw out the unconstitutional parts. (Members of Congress sometimes cite a similar theory to explain why they vote for bills they are not sure are constitutional.) But as such commentators as Justice Scalia have pointed out, members of each of the three branches of government, not just the high court, take oaths pledging to uphold the Constitution. Among the functional purposes of the oath is to impress on them that the task of upholding the document is not just someone else’s, but theirs as well. To adopt what you might call the sole-goalie theory of constitutionality — which lets you kick the ball toward the goal of a Constitutional violation, relying on the Court to block — is to leave the document at best in the vulnerable state of being defended once when it deserves three-deep defense. (DURABLE LINK)
February 22-24 — “Student Grading by Peers Passes High Court Test”. The Supreme Court, interpreting federal law, unanimously decides it’s not illegal for teachers to let students rate each other’s work (see Nov. 28, 2001) (Charles Lane, Washington Post, Feb. 20).
February 22-24 — Culture war over BB guns. As suburban culture clashes with rural in Alpharetta, Ga., outside Atlanta, “a new ordinance here makes it a crime to let children under 16 use a BB gun — or its modern cousin, the paintball gun — without parental supervision.” Quotes our editor, although the sentiments attributed to us came out slightly more colorful than what we actually recall saying (Patrik Jonsson, “Town’s curb on BB guns becomes a clash of values”, Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 22).