For many years, under a widespread interpretation of a 1974 Supreme Court case called Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, many courts believed that in deciding whether to certify a lawsuit as a class action they were not authorized to look ahead to the suit’s merits, even if the evidence at hand suggested those merits to be fatally flawed. In its landmark decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, however, the Court made clear that determining whether the prerequisites for class handling have been satisfied will frequently call on courts to consider and resolve questions that overlap the merits. But the exact application of Dukes has yet to be worked out, and lower courts are generating inconsistent results.
The Court has agreed to take up these questions again in a case called Comcast v. Behrend. The Third Circuit, considering an antitrust case challenging Comcast’s business practices in communities around Philadelphia as anticompetitive, upheld certification despite Comcast’s argument that some members of the plaintiff class could not have suffered injury; in particular, it rejected Comcast’s argument that the judge should subject the views of the plaintiff’s expert on damages to Daubert scrutiny to determine whether those views were based on principles accepted by the relevant scientific community.
Now the Cato Institute has filed an amicus brief (to quote my colleague Ilya Shapiro)
urging the Court to clarify that what it meant in Dukes was that a full inquiry into the reliability and admissibility of expert testimony (a so-called Daubert inquiry) is required at the class-certification stage. A lower standard would obviously prejudice defendants because class certification “magnifies and strengthens the number of unmeritorious claims” and creates “insurmountable pressure on defendants to settle.” But it would also prejudice absent class members because certification based on inadmissible evidence may distort their perception of the likelihood of success and encourage the members to stay in the class. Since all class members who don’t opt out of the class are ultimately bound by a class action judgment, there’s a large potential for harm to these potentially valid claims as well.
For more background on the facts and legal implications of Comcast v. Behrend, see the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage, Paul Karlsgodt, and Sean Wajert and, on the related case of Gates v. Rohm & Haas, Andrew Trask.
…Garza v. Merck, ends with a whimper as the Texas Supreme Court unanimously throws it out. Ted has more at PoL.
In Mississippi Litigation Review blog, Philip Thomas argues that Kim Strassel’s article (which we discussed Sunday) overemphasizes the role played by U.S. Silica’s CEO. I think that’s more the doing of the WSJ headline writers (which do pitch the story of one guy standing alone against the plaintiffs’ bar) than Strassel; as Thomas himself acknowledges, Ulizio doesn’t try to take undue credit, and Strassel merely (and correctly) notes that lawyers alone couldn’t defeat the silica lawsuits without the support of the business community willing to stand up against the tort bar.
Thomas also objects to Ulizio’s characterization of the victory as “luck,” but luck definitely played a huge role. The scandal came to light solely because Judge Janis Jack held mass Daubert hearings at an abnormally early stage in the litigation. In fact (and I seem to be the only person who has ever made this point), Jack’s ruling was especially abnormal, because she made the Daubert ruling before she made a jurisdictional ruling—and her jurisdictional ruling found that 99% of the cases in front of her lacked complete diversity and needed to be remanded. In other words, Judge Jack’s famous condemnation of plaintiffs’ experts was largely an ultra vires advisory opinion (which is why her sanctions order was for only a couple of thousand dollars).
The luck of the MDL draw had everything to do with that result. Another judge might not have held Daubert hearings at such an early stage; another judge might not have actually applied Daubert even if she had held the hearings; another judge might have preferred to empty her docket immediately, rather than stalling on the eventual remand.
And these aren’t purely hypothetical musings: in the welding fumes MDL in Ohio, there has been plenty of evidence of mass tort fraud, yet the judge has refused to throw out cases, so they slowly continue to proceed to trial.
In that sense, Ulizio is absolutely right: “When you have an entire system that condones these lawsuits, that does nothing to police its own, where there are no consequences, right or wrong has nothing to do with it. It’s a coin flip.” The lawyers who brought these fraudulent cases are still practicing law; thousands of fraudulent mass tort lawsuits continue to be brought since Judge Jack’s ruling without consequence to the unethical lawyers who bring them.
Our source describes it as “quite a slapdown” by the judge, good news for bloggers who may have been feeling chilled by the now-celebrated subpoena aimed by Virginia vaccine attorney Clifford Shoemaker at investigative blogger Kathleen Seidel, who had criticized him. (Neurodiversity, Jun. 23; ruling in PDF at Public Citizen, which defended Seidel; Orac, Citizen Media Law Project, Bug Girl).
I’m proud to note that I helped break the story in April and have posted regular updates since then.
Not directly related, but also of note from Kathleen Seidel’s blog: you’re not going to believe what some attorneys consider a source of credible evidence when pressing claims in the government’s Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (Jun. 13).
P.S. Comments take issue with its being “quite a slapdown”, and suggest that it was more like a slap on the wrist.
Mark Lanier and other plaintiffs lawyers are giving a series of interviews where they complain that the Ernst v. Merck decision (discussed yesterday) is “judicial activism that reinterprets the evidence.” (E.g., in Texas Lawyer.) This is nonsense. Ernst follows well-stated precedent. Indeed, I predicted precisely this result and precisely the case the appellate court would use to strike down the decision the week of the jury’s verdict.
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If you’re not keeping up with our sister site, you’re missing out on stories about how expert evidence standards help plaintiffs too (and more); animal rights more voguish at many law schools than those dull old humans; Ohio Supreme Court commended; implications of recent plunge in carpal tunnel cases; 93% enrollment in Vioxx settlement; attorney faces criminal charges after his clients quit their nursing jobs; extensive coverage of Gov. Spitzer’s downfall; more trouble for Florida lawyer accused of bribing defendant’s adjuster to obtain settlement target numbers; ballot measure would abolish employment at will in Colorado; judicial seminars by the securities class action bar; and much more.
Welcome BBC listeners; more on the blind shoppers’ suit against Target here. Most of our material on this site originates in the U.S. but we do have a page of British items, and here are some more:
- Sheffield-based clown “Barney Baloney” finds it harder to amuse children now that liability insurers have vetoed his bubble machine and supermarkets bar him from using allergenic latex balloons [Daily Mail, Telegraph, AFP/Breibart, Lowering the Bar; video at Breitbart.tv]
- Good opinion column prompted by above: “the fear of legal action is not a fantasy of liberal killjoys … what has really happened is that a small minority of the population have become accident-intolerant and are prepared to enforce their utopia through the courts.” [Mark Lawson, Guardian]
- Furor over official ruling that man who killed London headmaster can’t be deported back to Italy without violating his human rights “as he no longer has strong family ties there” [Telegraph]
- Scandals about groundless expert testimony in infant death prosecutions lead to calls for importation of Daubert rules, maybe even national institute of forensic science [Times Online]
- Labour government will propose bill to halt prosecution of homeowners who defend themselves with “proportional” force against burglars, home invaders [Telegraph] while Tories pledge to end “compensation culture” in school governance [likewise]
- State of UK law blogs, and link to a list of them [Nick Holmes via Kevin O'Keefe]
- Please, please don’t: leading consumer group calls for adoption of U.S.-style class action system in which lawyers can represent everyone who doesn’t affirmatively opt out [Times Online]
Over at Point of Law, there’s a new Featured Discussion on medical malpractice: our own Ted Frank expands on his theory that it might be a good idea for doctors to benefit from something akin to the “business judgment rule”, by which courts refrain from second-guessing many decisions of corporate directors and officers in shareholder litigation. Ably representing the opposite point of view is Peter Nordberg, whose Daubert on the Web and Blog 702 cover scientific evidence issues in the courts with unrivaled depth.
Peter Nordberg points us to an unpublished Fourth Circuit opinion upholding an expert’s testimony as to damages. Mary Lafontaine Parmenter’s investment advisor moved her $730,000 account into stock mutual funds in late 1999, increasing its value to $1.1 million at the height of the stock market bubble in 2000 (even as she was withdrawing $6000/month), whereupon it declined in value to $342 thousand. The expert argued that the most serious breach of the investment advisor’s duties came when he failed to consolidate the gains, and that losses should be counted from the peak of the account’s value. I don’t doubt that the investment advisor could have been found to be inappropriately aggressively investing Parmenter’s money; but if he was doing so inappropriately in April 2000, he was doing so inappropriately in 1999, when he made her half a million dollars; there’s something unseemly about the calculation of loss. Hindsight is nice: if the expert, F. John Hermann, could accurately forecast account value peaks, he’d be a billionaire rather than an expert-for-hire.
The opinion also reveals that the plaintiff’s attorney successfully tricked the defendant into conceding that an accurate SEC disclosure form that he had filed was inaccurate; the appeals court offered no relief because of lack of evidence that the tactic was intentional.
In the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Philip K. Howard, president of Common Good and a longtime friend of this site, contributes an essay on fixing our litigation system. Among his topics: the need for a robust principle of assumption of risk; lessons from the U.K., where a “compensation culture” has spread despite a set of legal procedures that is the dream of reformers on this side of the Atlantic; the role of summary judgment and Daubert review; and the role of predictable law in maintaining the principle of the rule of law (Spring).
On June 1, 1998, Clark Seeley left the house while leaving Pop-Tarts heating in a toaster. Poor decision: there was a fire in the unattended toaster, and his house was damaged. Seeley blames not himself, but the toaster manufacturer. (The press doesn’t mention it, but Seeley’s insurance company initiated the suit before apparently settling.) The story is in the news now because (paging Peter Nordberg) the judge (probably correctly) held Wednesday that an expert’s study that a frosted-sugar pastry could conceivably start a toaster fire was admissible because it was falsifiable. The real question is why a court has let this case get to the stage where parties need to hire lawyers to supervise and submit reports from frosted-sugar pastry experts. (Michael Virtanen, “Judge Allows Expert on Pop-Tarts To Testify in Flaming Pastry Lawsuit”, AP/NY Sun, Dec. 17; Liberty Mutual Ins. v. Hamilton-Beach, 1:99-cv-01162-LEK-DRH (N.D.N.Y.)) The maker of Pop-Tarts was not sued, perhaps because the box warns consumers not to leave pastries unattended in the toaster. (Sean Carter, “Pop-torts”, November 2, 2001). Previous suit: Jul. 30, 2001. Update: New York Lawyer weighs in. (John Caher, “Engineer Ruled Expert Witness in Flaming Pop-Tart Case”, Dec. 21).
By reader acclaim, from Oregon: “A Portland lawyer says suffering by African Americans at the hands of slave owners is to blame in the death of a 2-year-old Beaverton boy. Randall Vogt is offering the untested theory, called post traumatic slave syndrome, in his defense of Isaac Cortez Bynum, who is charged with murder by abuse in the June 30 death of his son, Ryshawn Lamar Bynum. Vogt says he will argue — ‘in a general way’ — that masters beat slaves, so Bynum was justified in beating his son.” However, attorney Vogt may find it a challenge to secure the admissibility of the slavery-trauma theory, which has been accepted by neither the courts nor the psychiatric profession. Washington County Circuit Judge Nancy W. Campbell threw out pretrial testimony by Joy DeGruy-Leary, an assistant professor in the Portland State University Graduate School of Social Work, to the effect that the brutality of slavery, together with continuing racism, oppression and societal inequality, helps explain self-destructive, violent or aggressive behavior in African-Americans. Judge Campbell said she would reconsider allowing the defense in Bynum’s September trial, but only “if his lawyer can show the slave theory is an accepted mental disorder with a valid scientific basis and specifically applies to this case.” (Holly Danks, “Judge rejects slave trauma as defense for killing”, The Oregonian, May 31). According to David Bernstein, writing two years ago, the standards for admission of expert testimony in Oregon are not as tight as might be wished (“Disinterested in Daubert: State Courts Lag Behind In Opposing ‘Junk’ Science”, Washington Legal Foundation (PDF) Legal Opinion Letter, Jun. 21, 2002)(search on “Oregon” or scroll to near end of piece).
Good New York Times page-one article investigating the Senator’s legal work, and in particular his big-ticket lawsuits over cerebral palsy. (Adam Liptak and Michael Moss, Jan. 31). See our earlier coverage Jan. 20 and Jan. 26. Alex Tabarrok, Sydney Smith, Charlotte Hays and Wayne Eastman comment.
Meanwhile, a theme has developed among several lawyer and law-professor bloggers that Edwards should not be held up to reproach even if it turns out that he employed dubious expert testimony to extract fortunes from innocent obstetricians, on the grounds that a trial lawyer is just doing his job when he seeks to introduce all admissible evidence on behalf of his client; in fact, he may even be obliged to do so as an ethical matter of “zealous advocacy”. (It should be stressed that Edwards strongly disputes the idea that his cases were in any way scientifically dubious.) We ourselves aren’t buying this line of reasoning, but it has some articulate advocates, including Peter Nordberg (who also defends Edwards here, while acknowledging that some details in the new Times piece “may supply grist for Edwards’ critics”), Franco Castalone, and David Bernstein. For our views of what constitutes proper “zeal” on lawyers’ part, see Jul. 17.