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Arlen Specter

In his wrapup post at Point of Law, Jim Copland summarizes pending legislation — much of it sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) — aimed at “loosening pleading standards, expanding securities litigation, rolling back federal preemption, limiting private arbitration, and cutting taxes on plaintiffs’ litigation.”

February 18 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 18, 2010

My Manhattan Institute colleague Jim Copland has an op-ed today in the WSJ explaining how current campaign finance rules magnify the influence of trial lawyers, as through the favored status of “bundling”. Excerpt:

Over the current six-year senatorial election cycle, four of the top seven donors to the campaign committee and leadership PAC of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) were plaintiffs firms. Plaintiffs firms were the top two donors to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.).

The first piece of legislation signed by President Obama—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 — gutted statutes of limitation in employment lawsuits. The first legislative triumph for new Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, foreclosed employment arbitration clauses for federal contractors.

More from Jim at Point of Law, including a mention of Trial Lawyers, Inc.: K Street–A Report on the Litigation Lobby 2010, the newest installment in the Trial Lawyers, Inc. series, which will be available later today here.

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March 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on March 5, 2009

It’s like magic, we’ll just make Big Business pay:

Washington, D.C., lawyer Thomas Fay has spent years hounding the Libyan government for money on behalf of victims of terrorist attacks. Now he’s hoping to collect — from American companies.

Fay has sent letters to 13 brand-name corporations, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron, notifying them that if he wins his case against Libya, he’ll be coming after them. He has even sent one to White & Case, the prominent law firm that recently signed on to defend Libya.

The gambit stems from a change in the law meant to make it easier for plaintiffs to secure judgments and collect from countries found responsible for sponsoring terrorist attacks. Until recently, those who had prevailed in court had few options for collecting.

But on Jan. 28, President George W. Bush signed a bill amending the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to allow plaintiffs to seek any asset owned by the terrorist-sponsoring country in reach of American courts, including frozen accounts or property managed by others. The amendment also permits victims to request punitive damages, which they couldn’t before, and eliminates some avenues for appeal. Under the new law, plaintiffs with pending cases had 60 days to file or refile claims.

Attorney Fay was among those lobbying for the new provision, which was sponsored by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). (W.J. Hennigan, Legal Times, Apr. 15).

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As a number of commentators have noted (e.g. Brett Kittredge @ Majority in Mississippi, Alan Lange @ YallPolitics), Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who just entered a guilty plea on charges of judicial corruption, is someone accustomed to throwing the weight of his pocketbook around in Mississippi politics. In particular, he has been among the biggest donors to incumbent Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, even as Hood employed Langston and partner Tim Balducci on contract to handle the controversial MCI tax bill negotiations, with their resulting $14 million legal fees payable to Langston et al, and the potentially very lucrative Zyprexa litigation.

Equally interesting in some ways, however, are Langston’s activities on the national political scene. To take just one example: this CampaignMoney.com listing tabulates the top “527″ contributions to a group called the Democratic Attorneys General Association, whose political and electoral mission is implied by its name. In the listing, two donors are tied for first place, with contributions of $100,000 apiece. One is the large Cincinnati law firm of Waite Schneider Bayless Chesley, associated with one of the country’s best-known plaintiff’s lawyers, Stanley Chesley. The other $100,000 contribution is from Joey Langston.

In presidential politics, Langston has recently been a repeat donor to the quixotic (and, since Iowa, defunct) campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a lawmaker whose high degree of seniority on the Senate Judiciary Committee makes him important to ambitious lawyers whether or not he ever attains the White House. When the Scruggs scandal was still in its early stages, the WSJ law blog (Dec. 10) noted that two key figures in the affair, Tim Balducci and Steve Patterson, were strong backers of the Biden campaign: “Their bet on Biden was that he wouldn’t win the presidency but would become Secretary of State under a Hillary Clinton administration, according to two people familiar with their thinking.” The Journal reprinted (PDF) an invitation to an Aug. 10, 2007 fundraising reception for Biden at the Oxford (Miss.) University Club, sent out above the names of six hosts, three of whom (Scruggs, Balducci and Patterson) were soon indicted. Scruggs, of course, is better known for his support of Mrs. Clinton, a fundraiser for whom he had to cancel after the scandal broke.

Campaign-contributions databases such as OpenSecrets.org and NewsMeat indicate that Langston has been a prolific and generous donor to incumbent and aspiring Senators across the country, mostly Democrats (Murray, Cantwell, Daschle, Nelson, etc.) but also including a number of Republicans who might be perceived as swing votes or reachable, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Me.), and Arlen Specter (Penn.)

Incidentally, some critics have intimated that Langston’s generous support to DAGA, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, should actually be interpreted as a roundabout gift to Hood, who was the beneficiary of interestingly timed largesse from DAGA. It does not appear, however, that any of the parties involved — Langston, Hood or DAGA — have acknowledged any connection between the timing of the donations (& welcome Michelle Malkin, David Rossmiller, YallPolitics readers).

[Second of a two-part post. The first part is here.]

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Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Tom Harkin (D-Ia.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have teamed up to co-sponsor a proposed constitutional amendment that “would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions that limit Congress’ power to regulate the funding of political campaigns. … the amendment would repeal the 1st Amendment as it relates to campaign finance. This would be the first time in our history that we altered the Constitution to curtail liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. It would also have the effect, not accidental, of protecting incumbent members of Congress from being unseated at the polls.” (Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune/syndicated, Oct. 28).

P.S. Then there’s the possibility that the talk-radio-stifling Fairness Doctrine will be reintroduced in 2009 or after (John Fund, OpinionJournal.com, Oct. 29). And while “Crooked Timber” may be a pleasantly evocative name for a weblog, would arch-liberal Isaiah Berlin really have been so keen to use the state’s coercive power against unwanted speech? (Sullivan, Bainbridge)(& welcome Salon Blog Report readers).

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Sen. Arlen Specter has risen to the level of self-parody and “accused the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles of treating Terrell Owens unfairly, and might refer the matter to the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.” The AP story quotes a couple of experts as noting that there isn’t an antitrust problem in much more polite terms than I would have. (AP/ESPN, Nov. 29 (hat-tip L.S.)). Owens seems to provoke a lot of silliness: see Nov. 24 and links therein.

Specter’s pick

by Walter Olson on January 26, 2005

The American Spectator’s unsigned “Prowler” slams Sen. Arlen Specter for selecting as general counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee Carolyn Short Torsella, whom it describes without more as a “trial lawyer” and implies might prove unacceptably liberal to the GOP majority. (“Specter?s Trial Lawyer Appointee”, Jan. 26). It does not add — but probably should have — that Ms. Short’s renown with the firm of Reed Smith is on the defense side, where she has helped employers fight off discrimination suits. A profile of Ms. Short in Forbes three years ago (Joanne Gordon, “Get Shorty”, Dec. 24, 2001; same article reprinted at Reed Smith site) provides zero support for the depiction of Ms. Short as wild-eyed liberal: “The vast majority of discrimination cases are hogwash,” is the first thing it quotes her as saying.

Charm offensive? “Last week, ATLA dispatched a team of Republican trial lawyers to meet with key GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. … behind the scenes, ATLA has been surprisingly generous toward GOP organizations,” giving $30,000 apiece this cycle to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, the maximum allowable. (Geoff Earle, The Hill, May 5)(see Aug. 25). In Florida, housing secretary Mel Martinez’s background as a former president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers continues to generate controversy in the Republican Senate primary race, which comes to a vote Aug. 31; but Martinez says he supports class-action reform and even some version of loser-pays (William March, “Stance On Tort Awkward For GOP”, Tampa Tribune, May 2; see Feb. 21). [Update Sept. 3: Martinez wins primary]. And in Pennsylvania, the plaintiff’s bar is both perplexed and delighted that two of its good friends — incumbent Republican Arlen (“Shanin’s dad“) Specter and Democratic challenger Joe Hoeffel — are running against each other for Senate. “It’s going to be a tough call,” said James Mundy, a former president of the trial lawyers’ association in the Keystone State. “But in a sense it’s a nice call, because we can’t lose.” (Melissa Nann, “Arlen Specter or His Opponent? Trial Lawyers Like Both”, Legal Intelligencer, May 4). See also Lori Patel, “Lawyer Loyalties Eclipse Family Ties”, Law.com, Feb. 5 (Kline & Specter members donated more to Sen. Edwards than to Sen. Specter).

A tangled Mississippi web“, Jun. 16-17, 2003; “Mississippi investigation heats up“, May 7, 2003; “‘High court judge had use of condo owned by group that includes trial lawyer’“, Oct. 11-13, 2002; “Rumblings in Mississippi“, Oct. 9-10, 2002.

Sen. Edwards, 2003:More on Edwards’ law-firm donations“, May 8; “Edwards leads in fund raising“, Apr. 7-8; “‘Edwards doesn’t tell whole story’“, Mar. 4 (& letter to the editor, Mar. 31). 2002:‘Bush urges malpractice damage limits’“, Jul. 29; “‘Edwards’ fund raising a strong suit’“, Jul. 18 (& Sept. 3-4); “‘The trials of John Edwards’“, May 20-21; “What big teeth you have, Sen. Edwards“, May 1-2; “Trial lawyer smackdown!”, Feb. 20-21.  2001:Trial lawyer president?“, Mar. 9-11.  2000: The Veep that got away”, Aug. 15. 

Politicians’ ATM, 2003:‘Lawyers find gold mine in Phila. pension cases’“, Mar. 21-23; “ATLA’s hidden influence“, Jan. 21-22.  2002:Some election results“, Nov. 7; “Campaign roundup“, Nov. 4-5; “Pa. statehouse race: either way, Big Law wins“, Oct. 24; “Trial lawyers and politics: Michigan, Texas“, Oct. 9-10; “Last-minute friends in Texas politics“, Jul. 22-23; “Trial lawyer smackdown!” (Scruggs vs. Sen. Edwards), Feb. 20-21.  2001:Third Circuit cuts class action fees“, Sept. 25-26; “‘Trial lawyers derail Maryland small claims reform’” (Gov. Parris Glendening), July 25; “Villaraigosa and the litigation lobby” (Calif. assembly speaker), June 18; “Ness monster sighted in Narragansett Bay” (Rhode Island contributions by Ness Motley), June 7; “‘Nursing homes a gold mine for lawyers’” (Fla. lawyer said he probably gave $1 million to politicians last election cycle), Mar. 13-14; “‘Angelos made rare donation to GOP’” (Sen. Hatch’s campaign), Feb. 16-19; “Sen. Kennedy flies the trial-lawyer skies“, Jan. 8. 2000:O’Quinn a top Gore recount angel“, Dec. 15-17; “California’s lucrative smog refunds” (Lerach and Gov. Gray Davis), Dec. 5; “Friend to the famous” (Williams Bailey), Oct. 12; “‘Money to burn’” (Ness Motley), Oct. 6-9; “I know [you] will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now“, Sept. 14, 2000 (& more coverage: Sept. 15-17, Sept. 19); “Clinton’s trial-lawyer speech, cont’d“, Aug. 1; “Trial lawyers give $500,000 as legislation heads to Senate floor“, Jun. 14-15; “Texas tobacco fees” (recycling into party politics), May 22; “Gore among friendly crowd (again)“, April 12; “Al Gore among friendly crowd“, Mar. 30; “‘Trial Lawyers Pour Money Into Democrats’ Chests“, Mar. 24-26; “Bill Clinton among friendly crowd“, Feb. 14; “‘Tracking the trial lawyers’: a contributions database“, Jan. 21-23 (& Sept. 25-26).  1999: Hurry with those checks“, Dec. 1; “Give, and receive“, Sept. 25-26. 

Judicial elections, 2002:Some election results“, Nov. 7; “Campaign roundup“, Nov. 4-5; “Mudslinging in Ohio high court races“, Nov. 1-3 (& Nov. 4-5); “Ohio’s high-stakes court race“, Oct. 16-17; “Judicial selection, the Gotham way“, Oct. 15; “Rumblings in Mississippi“, Oct. 9-10. 2001:Don’t try rating our judges, or else” (Phila.), Oct. 24-25; “‘Philadelphia judicial elections still linked to cash’“, Oct. 12-14; “‘Reflections of a Survivor of State Judicial Election Warfare’” (Justice Robert Young, Mich.), July 3-4.  2000:More election results” (Mich., Ohio), Nov. 9; “Michigan high court races” (and earlier coverage Aug. 23-25, May 15, May 9, Jan. 31, 2000; Aug. 6, 1999); “Just had to donate” (Mississippi), Nov. 3-5; “Ohio high court races“, Oct. 30 (and earlier coverage Aug. 18, Aug. 6, 1999); “Campaign consultants for judges“, Aug. 28. 

Lobbying clout:Florida: ‘New clout of trial lawyers unnerves legislators’“, Mar. 20, 2003; “Let’s go to the tape” (ATLA lobbies Sen. Grams), Apr. 27, 2000; “House passes liability reforms“, Feb. 24, 2000; “Sixth most powerful” (Only sixth? Trial lawyers among Washington lobbies), Dec. 10, 1999; “Calif. state bar improperly spent dues on politicking“, Aug. 25, 1999. 

RN, 2003:‘Public deceit protects lawsuit abuse’“, Mar. 15-16; “ATLA’s hidden influence“, Jan. 21-22.  2002:Nader credibility watch” (calls fast-food restaurants “weapons of mass destruction”), May 24-26.  2001:Channeling Chomsky” (Trade Center attacks), Oct. 22 (& Oct. 1); “Trial lawyers (some of them) yank Nader funding“, Feb. 16-19.  2000:Election special: Nader non grata“, Nov. 10-12; “Coercive capitalism?“, Nov. 6; “Election roundup” (Nader “dashboard saint” to trial lawyers), Oct. 23; “RN’s illusions“, Sept. 22-24; “Bush-Lieberman vs. Gore-Nader?“, Aug. 14; “Nader cartoon of the year“, Jul. 31; “Nader, controversial at last“, Jun. 13. 

Friends in high places, cont’d” (Kansas governor), May 5, 2003. 

Politico’s law associate suspended over ‘runner’ use” (Louisiana), Feb. 14-16, 2003.

Trial lawyer’s purchase of Alabama governor’s house said to be ‘arm’s-length’“, Jan. 7-8, 2003.

Friends in high places, cont’d“, May 5, 2003; “Gotham’s trial lawyer-legislators“, Dec. 13-15, 2002; “Trial lawyers’ clout in Albany“, Oct. 4, 2000. 

Lawyers as candidates:To tame Madison County, pass the Class Action Fairness Act” (Ill. Senate seat), Jun. 12-15, 2003; “Some election results“, Nov. 7, 2002; “Campaign roundup“, Nov. 4-5; “‘Wealthy candidates give Democrats hope’“, Oct. 11-13, 2002; “Trial lawyer candidates“, Jul. 6, 2000 (& update Sept. 15-17: Ciresi defeated in primary bid); “Tort fortune fuels $3M primary win” (House race in W.V.), May 11, 2000 (& updates Oct. 23, Nov. 9 (lawyer defeated); “‘Lawyer’ label hurts at polls“, Dec. 8, 1999.

‘Morales’ $1 Million Tobacco Fee Under Fire’” (Texas), Jul. 15, 2002; “Texas tobacco fees: Cornyn’s battle“, Sept. 1-3 (& May 22, 2000, June 21, 2001, Aug. 29-30, 2001, Nov. 12, 2001).

Congress, 2003:To tame Madison County, pass the Class Action Fairness Act” (Ill. Senate seat), Jun. 12-15. 2002:Some election results“, Nov. 7; “Campaign roundup“, Nov. 4-5; “Durbin’s electability“, Apr. 25.  2001:‘Angelos made rare donation to GOP’” (Hatch), Feb. 16-19; “Philadelphia juries pummel doctors” (Sen. Arlen Specter), Jan. 24-25; “Sen. Kennedy flies the trial-lawyer skies“, Jan. 8. 2000:Litigation reform: what a Democratic Congress would mean” (comments of Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.)), Nov. 7; “Friend to the famous” (Williams Bailey), Oct. 12; “Owens Corning bankrupt” (House Judiciary Democrats), Oct. 6-9; “Veeps ATLA could love” (Durbin, D-Ill., and Cohen, R-Me.); “Trial lawyers give $500,000 as legislation heads to Senate floor“, June 14-15. 

Pres. & Sen. Clinton, 2001:Humiliation by litigators as turning point in Clinton affair“, May 24; “Push him into a bedroom, hand him a script” (Bill’s testimonial for tobacco lawyers), March 9-11. 2000:Friend to the famous” (Williams Bailey & HRC), Oct. 12; “I know [you] will give $100K when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now“, Sept. 14, 2000 (& more coverage: Sept. 15-17, Sept. 19); “Clinton’s trial-lawyer speech, cont’d“, Aug. 1 (& “a footnote”, Aug. 2); “Clinton’s date with ATLA“, Jul. 31; “Bill Clinton among friendly crowd“, Feb. 14. 1999:Gun litigation: a helpful in-law” (Hugh Rodham surfaces as middleman in gun cases), Oct. 25; and see 2000 campaign.

State attorneys general, 2002:Some election results“, Nov. 7; “Campaign roundup“, Nov. 4-5; “Spitzer riding high” (N.Y.), Jun. 17-18; “Microsoft case and AG contributions“, Apr. 3-4; “Like father, like daughter?” (Lisa Madigan, Ill.), Jan. 7-8. 2001:Vast new surveillance powers for state AGs?” (“biggest showboaters in American politics”), Sept. 25-26. 2000:Ness Motley’s aide-Gregoire, July 17; “Rewarded with the bench” (Connecticut AG Blumenthal), June 12.  1999:Illinois tobacco fees“, Oct. 16-17; “My dear old tobacco-fee friends” (Kansas attorney general picks her old law firm for lucrative contract suing tobacco firms), Oct. 11; and see state tobacco fees.

Judicializing politics (cont’d)“, Jun. 19-20, 2002; “Unlikely critic of litigation” (Larry Klayman, Judicial Watch), Apr. 16-17, 2002.

‘”Little” done for firm, Rendell says’” (law firms provide no-show jobs for politicians), May 9, 2002.

Texas trial lawyers back GOP PAC“, Mar. 12, 2002.

Third Circuit cuts class action fees“, Sept. 25-26, 2001; “ABA thinks it can discourage pay-to-play“, Aug. 11, 1999.

Update: Alabama high court reverses convction in campaign-tactics case“, Jul. 7, 2001; “Update: Alabama campaign-tactics case“, Aug. 31, 2000; “‘Bama bucks“, Nov. 16, 1999; “Alabama story goes national“, Sept. 1; “Playing rough in Alabama“, Aug. 26, 1999.

Chapman, Broder, Kinsley on patients’ rights” (Kinsley: “pretty true” that Democratic Party in lawyers’ pocket), Jun. 28.

‘Lender hit with $71M verdict’” (Mississippi legislators), Jun. 15-17, 2001.

‘The last tycoon’” (Peter Angelos), April 12, 2001; “Czar of Annapolis, and buddy of Fidel“, Dec. 9, 1999; “Maryland’s kingmaker“, Oct. 19, 1999.

Trial lawyer heads Family Research Council“, Mar. 2-4, 2001.


Archived entries on the 2000 presidential race and recount can be found here.

Monitor vote fraud, get sued for ‘intimidation’“, Oct. 24, 2000.

New page on Overlawyered.com: trial lawyers and politics” (this page launched), Jul. 28-30, 2000.

Lenzner: ‘I think what we do is practice law’” (private investigator’s tactics), Jul. 28-30, 2000.

Trial lawyers’ political clout“, May 8, 2000. 

Progressives’ betrayal” (Jonathan Rauch), Apr. 4, 2000; “Trial lawyers on trial” (Reader’s Digest), Dec. 23-26, 1999; “The reign of the tort kings“, Oct. 26; “Arbitrary confiscation, from Pskov to Pascagoula” (Michael Barone), Jul. 24, 1999.

Pro-litigation measures on California ballot“, March 6, 2000 (update Mar. 8: measures defeated).

From the Spin-To-English Guide” (“access to justice” rhetoric), Oct. 25, 1999.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 31-February 1 – “All you can drink” winner sues over fall. John Remley won an “all you can drink” contest at Super Bowl time a year ago and proceeded to pack away so much liquor that he fell and hurt his head. He’s suing for a sum in excess of $1 million, saying the bar should have seen he was drunk and cut him off. (Kimball Perry, “Man drinks his way into $1 million lawsuit”, Cincinnati Post, Jan. 24).

January 31-February 1 – “A No-Win Numbers Game”. Colleges cut men’s sports teams, and cut, and cut, trying to achieve the artificial “proportionality” pressed for by the federal Title IX law. Then they get sued anyway. “Last year, in pursuit of ‘gender equity’, the University of Miami eliminated the men’s swimming and diving program that produced Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. Brigham Young University eliminated its top ten ranked men’s gymnastic team and its top 25 ranked wrestling team. The University of New Mexico slashed three men’s teams. Miami University in Ohio eliminated 30 wrestlers, 25 men’s soccer players and 10 men’s tennis players — not just to save money (the men shared a total of eight scholarships among them) but to get the numbers right.” (Jessica Gavora, Washington Post, Jan. 14) (more).

January 31-February 1 – Unfairness of mandatory IOLTA. Such a clever idea: scoop up the interest on lawyers’ trust accounts (“IOLTA”) and use it to finance lawyering for the poor. However, the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the interest in the trust accounts rightfully belongs to the lawyers’ clients and can’t be hijacked for the benefit of others without compensation. The sums at stake are too small to “really” matter to clients, say proponents. “But mandatory IOLTA programs also violate client First Amendment rights,” argues George Kraw. “Individual legal consumers aid programs arguing public positions that some oppose.” (“A Matter of Principle”, The Recorder (San Francisco), Jan. 26).

January 31-February 1 – An anything-but-civil juror. Five days into jury deliberations in the two-month trial of a highly publicized suit by the Manville asbestos-plaintiff trust demanding that tobacco companies pay for the contribution of cigarette smoking to asbestos workers’ lung maladies, federal judge Jack Weinstein declared a mistrial after he was sent a handwritten note: “Juror has made threat against other juror to kill” if they have to be “here much longer.” (Tom Hays, “Tobacco-Asbestos Mistrial Declared”, Yahoo/AP, Jan. 25).

January 31-February 1 – Batch of readers’ letters. Our correspondents take issue with our handling of Holocaust reparations litigation, update the saga of antitobacco professor Richard Daynard and the conflicts he didn’t disclose in the British Medical Journal, and recount one man’s experience of being solicited by lawyers after a car crash.

January 30 – By reader acclaim: patented PB&J. Orrville, Ohio-based jam magnates J.M. Smucker have managed to patent the venerable peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or at least a particular crustless version of same. So discovered Albie’s, a food manufacturer and restaurant in Gaylord and Grayling, Mich., best known for its version of Michigan’s most famous delicacy, pasties. Albie’s started making crustless PB&Js for their customers last summer but have now been hit with a cease and desist letter saying that they are infringing on a patent # 6,004,596 issued in December 1999, to a Smucker unit for the “sealed crustless sandwich.” The Smucker people say the crimped edge makes all the difference. (Crystal Harmon, “Food company hopes to resolve jam over crustless sandwiches”, Bay City (Mich.) Times, Jan. 20; “Smucker protects peanut butter-jelly sandwich patent”, Reuters/FindLaw, Jan. 25) (& see letter to the editor, Feb. 12). Update: Albie’s prevails (Apr. 9 and May 31, 2005)

January 30 – Annals of zero tolerance: fateful fiction. Leading lights of the Canadian literary establishment are lending their moral support to the latest youngster to run afoul of zero-tolerance policies: “Within days of performing for his 11th-grade drama class a monologue he had written about a harassed student preparing to blow up his school, the young author, from a village near Cornwall, Ontario, was arrested, strip-searched, and incarcerated. His detention lasted 34 days — through his 16th birthday as well as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. He’s out of jail on $2,500 bail now, but has become a cause célèbre here.” (Ruth Walker, “Writers rally for Canadian boy jailed for tale”, Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26).

January 29 – Getting around small-aircraft lawsuit reform. “The General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (GARA) immunized makers of GA aircraft against lawsuits for defects in products older than 18 years and is credited — along with a strong economy — for breathing new life into non-commercial aviation in the U.S. But, if manufacturers are no longer liable, who is? … If you’re a pilot, an owner or a parts manufacturer, you may not like the answer.” Moreover, the ever-inventive Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in California has “carved a hole in GARA by ruling that an aircraft’s flight manual is a part of the aircraft. Thus, any post-sale revisions or deletions to an aircraft manual may restart the 18-year clock each time they are made.” (Phillip J. Kolczynski, “GARA: A Status Report”, AvWeb).

January 29 – Homemade cookie menace averted. Rachel Wray vowed to be the kind of mom who prepares home-baked goodies for her kids to take to school, but discovered the district had a policy: “No treat can be distributed to children on school grounds unless it’s sealed in packaging from a grocery store or retail bakery.” (“I wanted to be a mother who bakes”, Salon, Jan. 2). And the Washington Post reports that officials in Loudoun County, Virginia, are insisting that all bakers and canners take a food safety course before selling their homemade pies and jams at small town fairs. “They’re taking the country out of country” complains the director of the Lucketts Fair. (Christine B. Whelan, “Home Cooks Gag on Rules for Fairs in Loudoun”, Washington Post, Sept. 15 (fee-based archive — search on “Lucketts Fair”)) (via Max Schulz, CEI Update, Oct./Nov.) See “Pie Menace Averted”, Dec. 13, 1999.

January 26-28 – “The litigation machine”. Business Week‘s cover story explores some of the methods by which mass litigation gets ever more effective at extracting money from its targets. Among them: mass production of claims, sophisticated document-sharing, and financing arrangements by private firms that now finance actions in exchange for a slice of the proceeds. (Jan. 29).

January 26-28 – Anorexia as disability. Keri Krissik is suing Stonehill College in Massachusetts “for refusing to let her register on the grounds of her anorexia,” in violation, she says, of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Miss Krissik stands 5-feet-six-inches and weighs less than 100 pounds.” (“Anorexia as a disability?”, Washington Times (editorial), Jan. 18).

January 26-28 – Solomon’s child. “In Victoria[, B.C. in December], a seven-year-old boy was at the centre of a legal battle after his father refused written consent for a three-week car trip to Arizona and Disneyland. Jason Arsenault, the 28-year-old father, was prepared to deny his son this experience because Elizabeth Howse, his 27-year-old former common-law wife, wouldn’t agree to refrain from smoking in the car. … There is something worse than growing up in a household where your parents are constantly at each other’s throats — spending your childhood in a legal war zone, torn between adults whose petty courtroom battles never end.” (Donna LaFramboise, “Courts often encourage parents to keep bickering”, National Post (Canada), Dec. 19).

January 26-28 – Digital serfs? Contrary to what some commentators seem to imagine, the “vast majority of high-tech workers are not independent contractors or agency temps, and those who are overwhelmingly prefer their status, according to a new analysis by the Employment Policy Foundation of government data. ” Moreover, according to EPF, the average annual income of high-tech independent contractors and agency temps “is just over $51,000 — a figure not significantly different from high-tech professionals who are regular, traditional employees.” (“High Tech Independent Contractors and Agency Temps: Who They Are and How They Work” (PDF document), Jan. 23).

January 24-25 – Philadelphia juries pummel doctors. Southeastern Pennsylvania’s medical community is still reeling from a $118 million jury award last fall against St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. That topped verdicts of $55 million and $49.6 million in other malpractice cases within the same three-month span, the latter awarded to a client of Shanin Specter, one of the city’s most successful personal-injury lawyers. Specter also won a $158 million product-liability case against Ford Motor in 1998, as well as huge verdicts in cases involving motorcycle helmets and swimming pools; he happens to be the son of U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican who often breaks from his party on issues of litigation reform. (Karl Stark, “In Phila., malpractice awards have ‘gone haywire’”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 10; Hudson Sangree, “Jury Slams Ford with $153 Million Verdict for death of 3-year-old boy”, Lawyers Weekly USA, Jan. 11, 1999, reprinted at Kline & Specter site).

January 24-25 – Perils of regulatory discretion. “Flexible” rules, regulatory arrangements based on “reasonableness” — what could be better as a way of handling an issue like building permits? But actually it’s an invitation to whimsical delay, as one New Englander discovers when his quest to enlarge a house turns into a months-long ordeal: “the bureaucrats had plenty of discretion and were very reasonable, yet we were worse off than if what we wanted to do were simply forbidden. In that case we just wouldn’t have purchased the property. Instead, we had months of uncertainty after the purchase.” Prescription: clear rules, mechanically applied. (Gene Callahan, “Shaky ground”, Reason, Jan.).

January 24-25 – “Suicide-Attempt Survivor Sues”. “A former Suffolk deputy police inspector who tried to kill himself has filed a $45-million federal lawsuit, blaming the county for giving him back his service pistol, one day after stripping him of the weapon, fearing he might hurt himself or others.” Dominick Steo of Holbrook shot himself in the head in 1999. (Rick Brand, Newsday, Jan. 6).

January 24-25 – “Sex shop is fined because its videos are ‘too tame’”. Consumer protection authorities in York, England, have fined a sex shop owner £5,826 for selling as “hard-core” videos that were actually quite tame, such as a comedy starring Sixties sexpot Ursula Andress. Irate buyers “felt cheated”. (Sally Pook, Daily Telegraph (UK), Jan. 19).

January 22-23 – Metric martyr goes on trial. In a Sunderland, England, magistrates’ court, trial has begun for the greengrocer accused of selling bananas in pounds and ounces instead of Euro-directed measurements, in the first such prosecution for metric noncompliance (see “Don’t Give an Inch”, Nov. 13). The opposition Conservative Party registered sympathy with defendant Steven Thoburn by sending its shadow trade and industry minister to take him to lunch during a leave from the courtroom, provocatively sitting down to a McDonald’s “Quarter Pounder”. (David Graves, “Case of Metric Martyr ‘echoes trial of witches’”, Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 17; “Quarterpounder adds to troubles”, Jan. 17; “Sunderland Metric Martyrs” website. Plus: James Bond parody of undercover metric enforcement (best detail: “Miss Moneycent”): Tom Utley, “An honest man is charged while criminals are freed,” Daily Telegraph, Jan. 17. Update: Thoburn convicted (April 11, 2001)

January 22-23 – “Firms mum on troubled workers”. You might hope companies would warn each other about employees like Michael McDermott, the man police say murdered seven co-workers last month at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Mass. But the reality, the Boston Globe finds, is that human resource managers tend to keep mum about even serious problems with former personnel, rather than risk getting sued. ”Silence is golden,” says law professor Markita Cooper. ”Silence is protection.” Although most states have passed laws protecting reference-givers, and very few cases have ultimately gone against them, facing suit is itself perceived as the punishment, win or lose. Edgewater itself says that when other companies call to ask for references on its ex-workers, it goes no farther than verifying employment: ‘there are a number of sticky laws in place about what a company can and can’t say,” says a spokesman. (Michael Rosenwald, “Firms mum on troubled workers”, Boston Globe, Jan. 9).

January 22-23 – Someone might get confused. “Just when you think the battle over domain names and trademarks can get no more ridiculous, Pillsbury goes and ups the ante. Universities and companies as large as Sun Microsystems received cease-and-desist letters this week ordering engineers to stop holding what the [giant flour maker] considers illegal ‘bake-offs.’ But it’s not as if the engineers are huddling together around the oven trading stolen recipes — in techie lingo, a ‘bake-off’ is a get-together in which software programmers test their creations against network protocols to see if they will work correctly. … No matter: The geeks are infringing on Pillsbury’s ‘bake-off trademark,’ the letters argued.” (Damien Cave, “Pillsbury Doughboy mauls techies”, Salon, Jan. 20)(Slashdot thread).

January 22-23 – CBS among asbestos litigation targets. “Viacom, which became one of the largest media companies in the world with its acquisition of CBS Inc. in May, is facing 140,872 unresolved asbestos-related claims from discontinued operations of Westinghouse Electric Corp. as of Sept. 30. Westinghouse Electric purchased CBS in 1995 and took on the name CBS Corp.” On the other hand, Warren Buffett has been buying up stocks of some besieged companies, perhaps betting that Congress will attempt to resolve the issue. (Gregory Zuckerman, “Specter of Costly Asbestos Litigation Haunts Old Economy Companies”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 27 (sub)). An exec with auto parts maker Federal-Mogul “said 90% of [its asbestos] claims are now paid to people who show no serious ill effects. Still, Federal-Mogul expects to make payments of $350 million this year and a further $550 million by 2004.” (Paul M. Sherer, “Federal-Mogul Gets New Credit Lines, Plans to Fight Against Asbestos Litigation”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4) (sub).