“If we don’t get a dime, that’s OK, if we can make a difference and save some lives,” said longtime Overlawyered favorite Willie Gary, one of the lawyers representing a woman awarded $23 billion-with-a-b in punitive damages by a Florida jury for the lung cancer death of her husband, a longtime smoker. [USA Today] I’ve covered earlier stages in the long-running Florida Engel tobacco litigation, which included a $145 billion punitive damage verdict later thrown out, in articles here, here, and here, as well as Overlawyered coverage; more on Willie Gary.
More: Jacob Sullum on the illogical basis of the jury’s decision.
Eleventh Circuit federal judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat has long been a critic of “shotgun pleadings,” which have been defined as pleadings that make it “virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claim(s) for relief,” as when every succeeding count indiscriminately incorporates the allegations of all previous counts. He’s back at it in a decision last month [Paylor v. Hartford Fire Insurance, PDF; South Florida Lawyers]:
We add, as a final note, that the attorneys in this case could have saved themselves, their clients, and the courts considerable time, expense, and heartache had they only paused to better identify the issues before diving into discovery. . . .
That such a straightforward dispute metastasized into the years-long discovery sinkhole before us on appeal is just the latest instantiation of the “shotgun pleading” problem.
After describing a vague complaint brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):
Defense attorneys, of course, are not helpless in the face of shotgun pleadings—even though, inexplicably, they often behave as though they are. A defendant served with a shotgun complaint should move the district court to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)3 or for a more definite statement pursuant to Rule 12(e)4 on the ground that the complaint provides it with insufficient notice to enable it to file an answer.
That not having happened, and the judge not having sua sponte instructed the plaintiff’s lawyer to file a more definite statement of claim,
the District Court tossed the case overboard to a Magistrate Judge for discovery.
At that point it was too late: the discovery goat rodeo had begun.
Result: a voluminous and contentious discovery record much of which bore on points irrelevant to the actual resolution of the case.
The persistence of the shotgun pleading problem is particularly frustrating because the relevant actors all have it within their power to avoid it. Nothing is stopping plaintiffs from refraining from writing shotgun pleadings. Certainly nothing is stopping defense lawyers from asking for a more definite statement; indeed, their clients would be well-served by efforts to resolve, upfront, the specific contours of the dispute, thereby lessening or even eliminating the need for costly discovery. And nothing should stop District Courts from demanding, on their own initiative, that the parties replead the case.
Last month I wrote about a strangely aggressive FBI raid on the rural Indiana home of a retiree locally famous for collecting artifacts and curios from around the world. In a piece written then but overlooked by me at the time, Radley Balko puts this in the context of equally aggressive armed enforcement raids on Indian artifact collectors in Florida and Utah, resulting in ruin for many defendants and, according to the reporting, at least four suicides of persons under investigation. Balko:
I remember collecting arrowheads as a kid. Depending on the state and the land on which you’re finding them, that in itself may or may not be legal today. Some states began banning the practice decades ago. But the laws were rarely enforced, and when they were, authorities targeted people stealing from preserved sites or tribal lands, or selling high-dollar artifacts.
No more. Under the phalanx of state, federal, and tribal laws, it may be a felony not only to buy and sell some manmade artifacts, but also to remove them from the bottoms of creek beds or dig them from the dirt. Most of the people busted in the Florida raids were hobbyists. And it’s conceivable that some of them had no idea they were breaking the law — though it also seems likely that some probably did.
The charts in this Washington Post article get steadily more interesting as they go along, and the most informative is the last: the top nine states or state-equivalents for per-capita medical malpractice outlays are, in order, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. Basically, that describes the Boston-Washington corridor with the exception of Delaware (Vermont makes for an even more notable break in the pattern because its outlays are among the lowest.) Most states outside the Northeast have reformed their malpractice law; most states in the Northeast have too powerful a trial lawyers’ lobby to let that happen.
Fortunately for residents of the rest of the country, the inconveniences of an unreformed high-litigiousness system — things like $100,000 premiums for doctors with good records who practice high-risk specialties — seem mostly to be borne by residents of the states in question. Overall, incidentally, as the chart previous to that shows, national payouts went through a decade-long decline but now have resumed climbing.
Until recently, Florida would have been a likely pick when enumerating states with the highest medical malpractice exposure, but the Sunshine State legislature finally got tired of being a target of the derision of the national medical profession and reformed its malpractice system. Or perhaps the better phrase would be, “thought it reformed”; the Florida Supreme Court, dominated by justices cozily allied with the plaintiff’s bar in re-election campaigns, just annihilated that reform. No one will be particularly surprised if Florida vaults up to top-ten status in future payout lists.
Town installs traffic cam by hospital emergency room, snags patient rushing in with coronary symptoms. The judge is no help, either. [Marianela Toledo, Florida Watchdog via Fergus Hodgson, PanAm Post]
Speed traps paved the way to corruption in tiny Hampton, Fla., critics say [CNN] More: Lowering the Bar.
“Patrick Coulton’s lawyers ripped him off to the tune of $275,000 and left him to rot in prison.” But few stories end this way: he’s living in one of the former lawyers’ houses. [Sun-Sentinel, auto-plays video]
Does it violate your rights when someone’s flying bullet enters your property? Should the law attempt to prohibit that? Or does it depend on the setting and customary land uses in the community? [Insurance Journal on Fla. law]
Meet the lawyer who sued the Fort Lauderdale Bridge Club in a dispute over its having ended his membership. The club proceeded to declare bankruptcy under his courtroom onslaught: “Since then there have been more than 600 docket entries in the bankruptcy case as Rosen pursued numerous motions and litigation.” [Joe Patrice/Above the Law, Daily Business Report]
Seeking help with an auto accident claim, Robert Friedrich was in a meeting with an attorney at a personal injury law firm in 2003 when a chair collapsed under him. He won a $2.2 million jury verdict against the law firm of Fetterman & Associates and a retailer that sold the chair, but an appeals court directed a verdict against him, finding a lack of needed causation. Now the Florida Supreme Court has reinstated the verdict [Legal Profession Prof, ABA Journal, earlier]
Perhaps the most remarkable passage in the ABA Journal’s coverage:
An expert for Friedrich said an inspection should have revealed the “weak joint” in the chair blamed for the collapse and said it should be standard procedure for businesses to test chairs every six months, the court recounts. An expert for the law firm said the only test for defects in chairs is to sit in them, and no other test would have revealed the defect that caused the Friedrich accident. …
A dissenting judge would have upheld the directed verdict against Friedrich. Even if the jury agreed that businesses should inspect chairs every six months, the dissenting judge said, there was insufficient evidence to prove that an inspection would have revealed the defect in the chair at issue.
Commenter DKJA at the ABA Journal writes:
So every business in Florida now has to “inspect” every piece of furniture every six months in perpetuity?
Maybe we should just replace all furniture with beanbag chairs. Although I’m sure someone would figure out how to injure themselves on one of them as well.