Posts tagged as:

haunted house

April 5 roundup

by Walter Olson on April 5, 2008

  • Ninth Circuit, Kozinski, J., rules 8-3 that Roommates.com can be found to have violated fair housing law by asking users to sort themselves according to their wish to room with males or other protected groups; the court distinguished the Craigslist cases [L.A. Times, Volokh, Drum]
  • Class-action claim: Apple says its 20-inch iMac displays millions of colors but the true number is a mere 262,144, the others being simulated [WaPo]
  • U.K.: compulsive gambler loses $2 million suit against his bookmakers, who are awarded hefty costs under loser-pays rule [BBC first, second, third, fourth stories]
  • Pittsburgh couple sue Google saying its Street Views invades their privacy by including pics of their house [The Smoking Gun via WSJ law blog]
  • U.S. labor unions keep going to International Labour Organization trying to get current federal ground rules on union organizing declared in violation of international law [PoL]
  • Illinois Supreme Court reverses $2 million jury award to woman who sued her fiance’s parents for not warning her he had AIDS [Chicago Tribune]
  • Italian family “preparing to sue the previous owners of their house for not telling them it was haunted”; perhaps most famous such case was in Nyack, N.Y. [Ananova, Cleverly]
  • Per their hired expert, Kentucky lawyers charged with fen-phen settlement fraud “relied heavily on the advice of famed trial lawyer Stan Chesley in the handling of” the $200 million deal [Lexington Herald-Leader]
  • Actor Hal Holbrook of Mark Twain fame doesn’t think much of those local anti-tobacco ordinances that ban smoking on stage even when needed for dramatic effect [Bruce Ramsey, Seattle Times]
  • Six U.S. cities so far have been caught “shortening the amber cycles below what is allowed by law on intersections equipped with cameras meant to catch red-light runners.” [Left Lane via Virtuous Republic and Asymmetrical Information]

{ 7 comments }

October 31 roundup

by Ted Frank on October 31, 2006

  • A WSJ Law Blog commenter thinks I’m too restrained in criticizing the plaintiffs’ bar. [WSJ Law Blog]
  • The Bush administration just might accomplish something else reform-related in its last two years. [Point of Law; Ideoblog]
  • 12-year-old California boy tries to jump over five-foot-long Halloween decoration that has chicken wire sticking out, hurts himself, 2-1 court decision says he can sue school district for failing to supervise him. [Los Angeles Daily News]
  • Jaycees may be forced to disband over haunted house lawsuit; they’ve stopped running the haunted house already. [Quad City Times]
  • Judge Easterbrook: “Gobs of judicial (and law-firm) time have been squandered by the combination of sloppy drafting, repeated violations of Rule 65(d), and inattention to all sources of subject-matter jurisdiction. If these lawyers were physicians, their patients would be dead.” [Blue Cross and Blue Shield Assoc. v. American Express Co. via Bashman]
  • Britons vandalize speed cameras. [NY Times]
  • Roger Pilon on California Prop 90. [LA Times via Bashman]
  • How to use a condom optimally, and save $13.5 million a year to boot. [Marginal Revolution]
  • You like me! You really, really like me! Or, if not “like,” a small fraction of you tolerate me enough to download my writings off of SSRN. [Torts Prof Blog]

{ 1 comment }

Many farmers use anhydrous ammonia as fertilizer, because it provides vital nitrogen nutrients to the soil. The combustible material is produced in Louisiana, and then shipped to the Midwest on barges or through pipelines, and then stored on tanks on farms. However, ammonia is also useful for making illegal methamphetamines, and thefts are a regular problem. (KOMU-TV, “Law Officers Fight Ammonia Thefts”, May 19). If a thief injures himself tampering with an ammonia tank, should he be able to sue the farmer for the injury? Three states, Kansas, Missouri, and Wyoming, say no, and provide immunity for those who store, handle, or own ammonia equipment from suit by thieves. Legislatures are considering the issue in other midwestern states.

The misnamed anti-tort reform Center for Justice & Democracy has noticed the success of the ATRA’s judicial hellhole campaign (Dec. 15; Dec. 3, 2003), and decided to respond with its own report, the “Zany Immunity Law Awards”, intended to single out “special interests” who opportunistically subvert the legislative system to get improper immunity from liability. The cover shows a legislator receiving a statuette, cash in his pocket, and roses with a ribbon labeled “Sleaziest Legislation.”

Exposing sleazy special-interest immunity laws is a noble sentiment–but it’s a sure sign of how few and far between such laws are that CJD singles out the sensible anhydrous ammonia immunity laws for its top ten list. The CJD incorrectly blames the law on a supposed “anhydrous ammonia business lobby”; in fact, it’s groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau that push for laws like Michigan S.B. 786. Indeed, the only group to oppose such laws? Trial lawyers’ lobbying groups. See also Kelly Lenz, “Fertilizer law to help farmers”, Farm and Auction, Jun. 12, 2002.

How ridiculous are the CJD awards? One of the top ten “zany immunity laws” refers to “immunity” granted to placebo manufacturers and distributors. Except the immunity in question isn’t immunity–it’s an exception to a criminal statute prohibiting the sale of fake drugs! E.g., Fla. Stat. 817.564(6)(a). (This is the only appearance of the word “placebo” in the Florida Code. It’s telling that CJD omits the statutory cite in its footnotes.) Perhaps this law is zany, but it’s hardly an example of a special interest group buying sleazy legislation that damages consumers. A subject of a research test who is injured by adulterated placebos (has this ever happened?) will still have a cause of action.

[click to continue…]

{ 9 comments }

Tipple your way to court, 2003:Shouldn’t have let him get so drunk” (Australia), May 12.  2002:‘Woman freezes; sues city, cabbie’“, Sept. 18-19; “Wasn’t his fault for lying drunk under truck“, Aug. 16-18; “Hey, no fair talking about the pot” (highway rollover), Apr. 12-14; “European workplace notes” (employer responsible for vodka overdose), Feb. 25-26; “‘Drunken Driver’s Widow Wins Court’s OK To Sue Carmaker’“, Feb. 25-26. 2001:‘Teen hit by train while asleep on tracks sues railroad’“, Dec. 12; “‘Man suing after drunken driving crash’“, Aug. 20-21; “Don’t rock the Coke machine“, Jul. 20-22; “Court says tipsy topless dancer can sue club“, Jul. 3-4; “Jury: drunk driver hardly responsible at all for fatal crash“, Jun. 15-17; “It was the bar’s fault“, Apr. 13-15; “‘Court upholds workers compensation for drunk, injured worker’“, Apr. 6-8; “‘Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000′” (Ontario), Feb. 7-8 (& see Sept. 24, second case: $18 million); “‘All you can drink’ winner sues over fall“, Jan. 31-Feb. 1.  2000:Zapped pylon-climber sues liquor-servers, utility“, March 6.  1999:Personal responsibility wins a round” (judge rejects case from Pa. man who got drunk and climbed high voltage catenary), Sept. 17-19. 

Maybe crime does pay, 2003:‘Robber sues clerk who shot him during holdup’“, May 6; “Not an April Fool’s joke“, Apr. 1; “‘Burglars to be banned from suing victims’” (U.K.), Mar. 10-11; “‘Family of electrocuted thief gets $75,000′“, Feb. 26; “Tried to outrun Coast Guard in chase“, Feb. 14-16; “‘No suits by lawbreakers, please’“, Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2).  2002:‘Mom who drugged kids’ ice cream sues’“, Nov. 1-3; “‘Patient sues hospital for letting him out on night he killed’” (Australia, psychiatric case), Oct. 16-17; “‘Crime pays for teenage lout’” (Australia), Sept. 3-4; “‘After stabbing son, mom sues doctors’“, May 31-Jun. 2; “‘Barbed wire might hurt burglars, pensioner warned’“, May 28-29; “Hospital rapist sues hospital“, May 22-23 (& Mar. 5-7, 2003: court dismisses case); “Lawyers say taxpayers owe $41 million to smuggled illegals’ survivors“, May 10-12; “L.A. police sued, and sued” (by family of gunman killed in shootout), Apr. 12-14; “Should have arrested him faster” (frostbite in the open), Mar. 1-3; “Vandal’s dad sues store over blaze“, Feb. 6-7; “Paroled prisoner: pay for not supervising me“, Jan. 4-6.  2001:Firefighter’s demand: back pay for time facing criminal rap“, Aug. 29-30; “‘Man suing after drunken driving crash’“, Aug. 20-21; “‘Criminals could sue their victims’” (U.K.), July 26; “‘Woman who drove drunk gets $300,000′” (Ontario), Feb. 7-8; “Crime does pay” (Denver burglar shot by police gets $1.2 million), Feb. 2. 2000:‘Burglar sues for compensation’” (Australia), Nov. 21 (& see Apr. 1-2, 2002); “‘Fla. DUI Teen Sues Police’” (should have arrested him, he argues), Nov. 14; “Killed his mother, now suing his psychiatrists“, Oct. 2; “Not my fault, I” (woman who murdered daughter sues psychiatrists), May 17; “$65 million Texas verdict: driver at twice the legal blood limit” (drunk driver’s estate sues automaker), March 28; “From the labor arbitration front” (disallowed firing of employee who pleaded no contest to larceny), March 28; “Crime does pay, cont’d” (North Hollywood, Calif. bank robber killed in police shootout), Feb. 23 (& update March 23: mistrial declared after jury deadlock in suit by robber’s family); “County to pay ‘mountain man’ burglar $412,500“, Feb. 15. 1999:‘Two men shot in suspected drug deal win $1.7 million’“, Dec. 15 (& update June 6, 2001: appeals court overturns); “California’s worst?” (bank robber sues after hidden tear-gas device goes off in loot), Dec. 14; “Drunks have rights, too“, Dec. 1 (& update Jul. 24-25, 2000: appeals court throws out award).  See also our editor’s article on New York’s “mugger millionaire” case

Pools & swimming, 2003:‘Lawyers spoil fun’” (Ga. water park), May 19; “‘Florida jury awards $100M for pool accident’“, Feb. 13.  2002:Australia’s litigation debate“, May 24-26.  2001:Australian roundup” (bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25; “Needed: assumption of risk“, Jul. 27-29.  2000:‘How’s the pool?’” (Las Vegas Strip’s Frontier Hotel recommended for its pre-big-lawsuits deep end), Feb. 23; “Latest shallow-end pool dive case“, Jan. 24.  1999:Razor wire on the pool fence” (homeowner finds it too big a legal risk to let local kids swim), Jul. 27. 

Should have watched his step answering call of nature“, Mar. 8-9, 2003.

Couldn’t help eating it, 2003:Give me my million“, Jun. 20-22; “Judge tosses McDonald’s obesity case“, Jan. 23 (& Jan. 27-28); “Anti-diet activist hopes to sue Weight Watchers“, Jan. 13-14.  2002: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23; “Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight“, Sept. 18-19; “Personal responsibility roundup“, Sept. 12; “Fat suits, cont’d“, Jul. 26-28; “‘Ailing man sues fast-food firms’“, Jul. 25; “Sin-suit city“, Jun. 10; “McArdle on food as next-tobacco“, May 27; “‘Targeting “big food”‘“, Apr. 29-30; “Life imitates parody: ‘Whose Fault Is Fat?‘”, Jan. 23-24.  2001:‘Diabetic German judge sues Coca-Cola for his health condition’“, Nov. 18.  2000:‘Caffeine added to sodas aims to addict — study’“, Aug. 18-20.  1999:Toffee maker sued for tooth irritation“, Nov. 5-7; “Not just our imagination” (calls for class-action suits against fast-food, meat purveyors), Sept. 25-26.

Warning labels and disclaimers, 2003:‘Wacky Warning Label’ winners“, Jan. 13-14.  2002:Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame” (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29; “‘Warning …’” (Dave Barry humor column), Aug. 16-18; “Read the label, then ignore it if you like” (flammable carpet adhesive), Jul. 12-14; “Pitcher, hit by line drive, sues maker of baseball bat“, Apr. 19-21; “Injured in ‘human hockey puck’ stunt“, Mar. 18; “‘Before you cheer … “Sign here”‘“, Mar. 15-17; “Didn’t know cinema seats retracted“, Feb. 13-14; “Warning on fireplace log: ‘risk of fire’“, Jan. 25-27.  2001:Et tu, UT?” (Utah will not enforce parent-signed release forms for children), Nov. 16-18; “Disclaimer rage?“, Oct. 15; “Needed: assumption of risk“, Jul. 27-29; “Quite an ankle sprain” (failure to warn of gopher holes in parks), Apr. 20-22; “‘Wacky Warning Label’ winners“, Jan. 19-21.  2000:Columnist-fest” (Girl Scout horseback riding disclaimer), Apr. 6; “Rise of the high school sleepover disclaimer“, Mar. 22; “From our mail sack: skin art disclaimers” (tattoo consent form), Mar. 1; “Weekend reading: columnist-fest” (Laura Pulfer on warning labels), Feb. 5-6; “Never iron clothes while they’re being worn” (Wacky Warning Label contest winners), Jan. 18 (& letter to editor, Jan. 21-23).  1999:Christmas lawyer humor” (Yuletide greetings consisting entirely of disclaimers), Dec. 23-26; “Weekend reading” (disclaimers “creeping into nearly every aspect of American life”), Jul. 31-Aug. 1. 

Blamed for suicides, 2003:‘No suits by lawbreakers, please’“, Jan. 27-28 (& Jan. 31-Feb. 2).  2002:The blame for suicide“, Sept. 25-26; “‘Addictive’ computer game blamed for suicide“, Apr. 3-4. 2001:Utah: rescue searchers sued“, Nov. 26, 2001; “‘Shooting range sued over suicide’“, Sept. 27; “$3 million verdict for selling gun used in suicide“, Sept. 17; “‘Suicide- Attempt Survivor Sues’” (department that issued cop his gun), Jan. 24-25. 

Excuse syndromes, 2002:Blue-ribbon excuses” (sex on train), Oct. 7-8; “So depressed he stole $300K“, Mar. 19; “Rough divorce predisposed him to hire hitman“, Feb. 13-14. 2001:Stories that got away” (multiple-personality defense), Jul. 23; “‘Pseudologica fantastica’ won’t fly” (judge’s fibs on resume), Jun. 7 (& Aug. 20-21); “Judge buys shopaholic defense in embezzling“, May 25-27; “The malaria drug made him do it“, Mar. 28.  2000:Blue-ribbon excuses” (baked goods mutilator, lawyer pleading incompetent self-representation), Oct. 6-9; “Predestination made him do it” (Pope’s assassin and Fatima prophecy), June 6; “Victim of the century?” (misbehaving school principal collects disability benefits for sexual compulsion), Jun. 2-4; “Prozac made him rob banks“, Mar. 1; “Blue-ribbon excuse syndromes“, Feb. 12-13; “Latest excuse syndromes“, Jan. 13-14.  1999: “Doctor sues insurer, claims sex addiction“, Oct. 13. 

Lightning bolt in amusement park’s parking lot“, Jun. 23, 2003; “‘Woman attacked by goose sues county’“, Jan. 27-28, 2003; “Quite an ankle sprain” (watch where you’re going in parks), Apr. 20-22, 2001. 

MIT sued over student’s nitrous-oxide death“, Feb. 25, 2003; “By reader acclaim: ‘Parents file suit over student’s drug death’” (abuse of Oxycontin), Jul. 25, 2001. 

Take care of myself?  That’s the doc’s job“, Feb. 14-16, 2003; “Claim: docs should have done more to help woman quit smoking and lose weight” (Pa.), Sept. 18-19, 2002.

Satirical-disclaimer Hall of Fame” (Australian humor magazine), Oct. 28-29, 2002; “Tobacco: Boeken record” (The Onion parody), June 19, 2001; “Jury orders ‘Big Chocolate’ to pay $135 billion to obese consumers” (parody), Aug. 3, 2000; “This side of parodies” (fictional account of self-inflicted icepick injury), Oct. 5-6, 1999. 

Sports risks:Sis-Boom-Sue” (cheerleading), Jan. 15-16, 2003; “Skating first, instructions later“, Sept. 25-26, 2002; “Pitcher hit by line drive sues maker of baseball bat“, Apr. 19-21, 2002; “Australian roundup” (Perth bodysurfer), Nov. 23-25, 2001; “Needed: assumption of risk” (baseball thrown into stands, skydiving), July 27-29; “‘Lawsuits could tame ski slopes’“, Feb. 6, 2001; “Promising areas for suits” (foul-ball cases and other stadium injuries), Dec. 7, 2000; “Teams liable for fans’ safety” (Colorado: hockey puck hit into stands), Aug. 15; “‘Skydivers don’t sue’“, May 26-29; “Trips on shoelace, demands $10 million from Nike“, April 7-9, 2000. 

Gambling: Letter to the editor, Oct. 23; “Personal responsibility roundup“, Sept. 12, 2002; “Sin-suit city“, Jun. 10; “‘Next tobacco’ watch: gambling“, May 20-21, 2002 (& May 31); “‘Gambling addiction’ class action” (Quebec), June 20, 2001.

Hot beverages:Litigation good for the country?” (Carl T. Bogus), Aug. 19, 2002; “British judge rejects hot-drink suits“, Mar. 29-31, 2002 (& Aug. 10, 2000); “By reader acclaim” (Illinois case; complainant sues mother), Jan. 11, 2001; “‘Court says warning about hot coffee unnecessary’” (Nevada Supreme Court), Jul. 18, 2000; “Now it’s hot chocolate“, Apr. 4, 2000. 

‘Family of boy injured by leopard may sue’“, Jul. 18, 2002; “Skinny-dipping with killer whale: ‘incredibly bad judgment’“, Sept. 21, 1999 (Oct. 7 update: case dropped). 

Wasn’t his fault for lying drunk under truck“, Aug. 16-18, 2002; “‘Win Big! Lie in Front of a Train!’“, Jun. 26-27, 2002 (& Jul. 12-14); “Australian roundup” (graffiti artist on train), Nov. 23-25, 2001; “Hit after laying on RR tracks; sues railroad“, Oct. 23, 2001. 

‘Man awarded $60,000 for falling over barrier’“, Mar. 5, 2002. 

Utah: rescue searchers sued“, Nov. 26, 2001. 

Suit blames drugmaker for Columbine“, Oct. 24-25, 2001. 

Mosh pit mayhem“, Sept. 7-9, 2001. 

Urban legend alert: six ‘irresponsibility’ lawsuits“, Aug. 27-28, 2001.

Don’t rock the Coke machine“, Jul. 20-22, 2001. 

Tobacco: Boeken record“, June 19, 2001. 

Scary!:From dinner party to court” (U.K. hypnotist), May 22, 2001; “Hypnotist sued by entranced spectator“, March 3-14, 2001; “Girl puts head under guillotine; sues when hurt“, March 8, 2000; “Haunted house too scary“, Jan. 6, 2000; “‘Scared out of business’” (decline of community Halloween haunted houses), Nov. 5-7, 1999. 

Stop having fun (children’s recreation): see schools page

Tendency of elastic items to recoil well known“, Mar. 6, 2001.

By reader acclaim” (sues alleged crack dealers over own addiction), Jan. 11, 2001.

Smoker’s suit nixed in Norway“, Dec. 18-19, 2000; “Personal responsibility takes a vacation in Miami” (Engle tobacco verdict), July 8, 1999.

Highway responsibility” (Derrick Thomas suit), Nov. 28, 2000.

Fat tax proposed in New Zealand“, Oct. 31, 2000. 

More things you can’t have: raw-milk cheeses“, Oct. 3, 2000; “More things you can’t have” (unpasteurized cider, New England square dances), Sept. 27, 1999; “More things you can’t have” (rare hamburgers, food sent to summer camp), August 9, 1999.

Smoking and responsibility: columnists weigh in” (after Florida verdict), Jul. 28-30, 2000. 

‘”Whiplash!” America’s most frivolous lawsuits’” (book collects cases), Jul. 14-16, 2000. 

Inmate: you didn’t supervise me” (horseplay alone in cell), Jul. 7, 2000. 

Can’t sue over affair with doctor” (court rules it was consensual), Jun. 13, 2000. 

Risky?  Who’da thunk it?” (currency speculator sues over losses), Jun. 9-11, 2000. 

‘Jury awards apparent record $220,000 for broken finger’” (hurt while dancing), May 22, 2000. 

Videogame maker agrees to furnish safety gloves“, Mar. 13, 2000. 

Letourneau scandal: now where’s my million?” (boy sues), Apr. 20, 2000.

All dressed up“, Apr. 19, 2000. 

Down repressed-memory lane I: costly fender-bender” (eggshell-psyche plaintiff), Dec. 29-30, 1999. 

Down repressed-memory lane II: distracted when she signed” (separation agreement), Dec. 29-30, 1999.

GM verdict roundup” (lawyers shift drunk drivers’ responsibility to automakers), Dec. 16, 1999; “Drunks have rights, too“, Dec. 1, 1999. 

Rolling the dice (cont’d)” (Internet gambler sues credit card companies that advanced him money), Dec. 7, 1999; “Rolling the dice” (same), Aug. 26, 1999.

Responsibility, RIP” (columnist Mona Charen), Nov. 2, 1999. 

The art of blame” (death of child left in hot van), Oct. 20, 1999. 

Nominated by reader acclamation” (killer’s parents sue school district, lawmen for failing to prevent Columbine massacre), Oct. 18, 1999. 

Block PATH to lawsuits” (fall out of tree in yard, sue your employer), Sept. 1, 1999. 

To restore individual responsibility, bring back contract principles” (Cato Institute paper by Prof. Michael Krauss), Aug. 16, 1999.

Somebody might trip” (NYC condemns prints-of-the- Hollywood-stars sidewalk as slip hazard), Aug. 13, 1999. 

All have lost, and all must have damages” (huge award to salesman who hawked bad insurance policies since he’s a victim too), Aug. 3, 1999.


Through much of American history, courts discouraged lawsuits arising from risks that individuals were deemed to have assumed in the course of going about familiar activities, such as the risk of being thrown while horseback riding, of slipping on toys underfoot while visiting a house with children, or of being hit with a foul ball while attending a ball game.  (Stored search on “assumption of risk”: Google, Alta Vista). Under the doctrine of “contributory negligence”, they often dismissed, as a matter of law, cases where a complainant’s own negligence had helped cause an accident.  They were even less likely to entertain cases in which someone’s knowing or deliberate dereliction had placed him in physical peril, such as cases in which people sue over injuries sustained in the course of committing crimes or attempting suicide.  And finally, they gave broad respect to express contractual disclaimers or waivers of liability: if a party was on notice that the other side in a transaction wasn’t willing to assume a responsibility, it wouldn’t be easy to tag them later with that responsibility in court. 

By the 1950s all these old barriers to liability had come under sustained attack in the law schools, where they were viewed as insulating defendants’ misconduct from legal scrutiny and impeding the forward march of liability law as a (high-overhead) variety of social insurance.  Most states moved from contributory negligence to comparative negligence, which allows a plaintiff whose negligence helped cause an accident to sue over it anyway, though for a reduced recovery.  Waivers and disclaimers began to be struck down as unconscionable, against public policy, not spelled out with sufficient clarity, etc.  And assumption of risk was whittled down by way of a dozen techniques: the most influential torts scholar of the postwar period, William Prosser, took the view that “that implied reasonable assumption of risk should not be allowed to reduce a plaintiff’s damage in any way” (Chase Van Gorder, “Assumption of Risk Under Washington Law“). 

The result is today’s American legal environment in which plaintiffs routinely try their luck at suits after being injured climbing high-voltage utility structures while drunk, skinny-dipping in icy pools with captive killer whales, trying “wheelies” and other stunts on industrial forklifts, and smoking for decades.  Some of these suits succeed at obtaining settlements while others fail, and it’s important to bear in mind that assumption of risk and related doctrines have not disappeared entirely.  Their general decay, however, has been important in bringing us today’s hypertrophy of such areas of law as premises liability, product liability and recreational liability. 

The website of attorney D. Pamela Gaines has useful resources on assumption of risk as it applies to such areas as premises liability, recreation and amusement parks. At the International Mountain Bicycling Association site, Tina Burckhardt explains “recreational use statutes” which grant some protection from liability lawsuits to landowners who allow free recreational use of their property.


June 30-July 2 – “Backstage at News of the Weird”. Chuck Shepherd writes the sublime “News of the Weird” feature, which is syndicated weekly to major papers and alternative weeklies nationwide. From time to time he’s asked which are “his favorite online scanning sites for weird news”. This site came in #4 of 6 — you’ll want to check out the whole list. (June 19).

Remarkable stories from the legal system turn up nearly every week both in “News of the Weird” and in the more recently launched “Backstage” column. Here’s one from the same June 19 number: “An Adel, Ga., man sued the maker of Liquid Fire drain cleaner for this injury (and follow this closely): LF comes in a special bottle with skull and crossbones and many warnings, but our guy thought, on his own that the bottle’s spout just might drip, so he poured the contents into his own bottle (which he thought would be drip-proof), whose packaging wasn’t able to withstand the LF and began to disintegrate immediately, causing the contents to spill onto his leg. So now he wants $100k for that.”

June 30-July 2 – Supreme Court vindicates Boy Scouts’ freedom. Matthew Berry, an attorney with the Institute for Justice who helped write an amicus brief for Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, explains why the principle of freedom of association that protects the Boy Scouts from government dictation of its membership is also crucial in protecting the freedom of gays and lesbians (“Free To Be Us Alone”, Legal Times, April 24) (case, Boy Scouts of America et al v. Dale, at FindLaw). See also Independent Gay Forum entries on the subject by Tom Palmer and Stephen H. Miller.

June 30-July 2 – “DOJ’s Got the Antitrust Itch”. After a decade or two of quiescence, antitrust is on the rampage again, led by Joel Klein and other officials at the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. (Declan McCullagh, Wired News, June 28).

June 30-July 2 – “Being a Lefty Has Its Ups and Downs”. Letter to the editor published in yesterday’s New York Times from our editor runs as follows: “To the Editor: At the City Council’s hearing on whether left-handed people should be protected by anti-discrimination law (Elizabeth Bumiller, “Council Urged to End a Most Sinister Bias”, June 22), a high school student called it discriminatory that banisters and handrails are often on the right side of public stairwells — at least from the perspective of someone climbing up. But people walk on stairs in both directions. It would seem the same stairwell that oppressively discriminates against lefties on the way up also discriminates against righties on the way down. Can they sue, too?

“The student also asserted that ‘societal discrimination results in the death of the left-handed population an average of 14 years earlier than the right-handed population.’ However, the study that purported to reveal such a gap was soon refuted. A 1993 study by the National Institute on Aging found no increase in mortality associated with handedness — not surprisingly, since insurance actuaries would long ago have made it their business to uncover such a correlation.” — Very truly yours, etc. (no longer online) (more on life expectancy controversy: APA Monitor, Psychological Bulletin, Am Journal Epidem — via Dr. Dave and Dee).

Postscript: Scott Shuger in SlateToday’s Papers” promptly took a whack at us over the above letter, claiming we didn’t realize that big stairwells at places like high schools have two-way traffic patterns where people keep to the right, leaving lefties without a rail for the handy hand whether headed up or down. But if anything, this proves our point that the issue isn’t, as had been claimed, the insensitive decision to place handrails on one side but not the other: typically these larger stairwells have handrails on both sides. Instead the broader culprit for those who wish to steady themselves with their left hand is the walk-on-the-right convention. Had the advocate of an antidiscrimination law acknowledged that point, however, much of the steam would have gone out of her argument, since few in her audience would have been inclined to view the walk-on-the-right convention as fixable “discrimination”. Nor is there anything in the original coverage to indicate that her gripe was at the absence of center rails, which have inconveniences of their own.

June 29 – Failure to warn about bad neighborhoods. “A Florida jury has awarded $5.2 million to the family of a slain tourist after finding that Alamo Rent-A-Car failed to warn the victim and her husband about a high-crime area near Miami.” Dutch tourists Gerrit and Tosca Dieperink, according to the National Law Journal, “rented an Alamo car in Tampa and planned to drop it off in Miami”. When they stopped in the Liberty City area of Miami to ask directions, they were targeted by robbers who recognized the car as rented, and Mrs. Dieperink was shot and killed. Lawyers for her survivors sued Alamo, saying it was negligent for the company not to have warned customers — even customers renting in Tampa, across the state — of the perilousness of the Liberty City neighborhood, where there’d been numerous previous attacks on rental car patrons. After circuit judge Phil Bloom instructed the jury that Alamo had a duty to warn its customers of foreseeable criminal conduct, jurors took only an hour of deliberations to find the company liable, following a seven-day trial. (Bill Rankin, “Alamo’s Costly Failure to Warn”, National Law Journal, May 22; Susan R. Miller, “Trail of Tears”, Miami Daily Business Review, May 8.)

Which of course raises the question: how many different kinds of legal trouble would Alamo have gotten into if it had warned its customers to stay out of certain neighborhoods? Numerous businesses have come under legal fire for discriminating against certain parts of town in dispatching service or delivery crews (“pizza redlining”); one of the more recent suits was filed by a civil rights group against online home-delivery service Kozmo.com, which offers to bring round its video, CD and food items in only some neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., mostly in affluent Northwest. (Elliot Zaret & Brock N. Meeks, “Kozmo’s digital dividing lines”, MSNBC/ZDNet, April 12; Martha M. Hamilton, “Web Retailer Kozmo Accused of Redlining”, Washington Post, April 14).

June 29 – “Angela’s Ashes” suit. Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, Tis) and his brother Malachy (A Monk Swimming) have had a runaway success with their memoirs of growing up poor in Ireland and emigrating to America (4 million copies have sold of Angela’s alone). Now they’re being sued by Mike Houlihan, “who in the early 1980s raised $20,750 to stage and produce a McCourt brothers play called ‘A Couple of Blaguards,’” also based on their early life. The play had only modest success, though it has begun to be revived frequently with the success of the memoir books. Mr. Houlihan says he and several others are entitled to 40 percent of the profits from Angela’s Ashes and the other memoirs because they are a “subsidiary work” of the play. “That would be a nice piece of money, wouldn’t it?” says Frank McCourt, who says his old associate “has hopped on America’s favorite form of transportation — the bandwagon”. (Joseph T. Hallinan, “Backers of McCourt’s Old Play Say They Are Due Royalties”, Wall Street Journal, June 6 (fee)).

June 29 – “Trying a Case To the Two Minute Mind”. California attorney Mark Pulliam passes this one on: a recent brochure from the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association offered a sale on educational videos for practicing litigators, of which one, by Craig McClellan, Esq., was entitled “Trying a Case To the Two Minute Mind; aka Trial by Sound Bite” (worth one hour in continuing legal education credits). According to the brochure, “The presentation shows how to streamline each element of a trial based on the fact that most jurors are used to getting a complete story within a two minute maximum segment on the evening news. This video demonstrates the effectiveness of visual aids, impact words and even colors, to influence the juror’s perception and thought process in the least amount of time.”

June 28 – Oracle did it. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that the big software maker and Microsoft rival has acknowledged it was the client that hired detective firm Investigative Group International Inc. for an elaborate yearlong operation to gather dirt on policy groups allied with Microsoft; the detective firm then offered to pay maintenance workers for at least one of the groups’ trash (see June 26). “The IGI investigator who led the company’s Microsoft project, Robert M. Walters, 61 years old, resigned Friday after he was named in stories about the case.” Oracle claims to have no knowledge of or involvement with illegalities — buying trash isn’t in itself necessarily unlawful — and IGI also says it obeys the law. (Glenn R. Simpson and Ted Bridis, “Oracle Admits It Hired Agency To Investigate Allies of Microsoft”, June 28 (fee))

June 28 – Born to regulate. Opponents say the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “ergonomics” proposals would tie America’s employers in knots in the name of protecting workers from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries (see March 17), and resistance from the business community is stiff enough that the regs ran into a roadblock in the Senate last week. However, Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online reports that “Marthe Kent, OSHA’s director of safety standards program and head of the ergonomics effort, couldn’t be happier at her job. ‘I like having a very direct and very powerful impact on worker safety and health,’ she recently told The Synergist, a newsletter of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. ‘If you put out a reg, it matters. I think that’s really where the thrill comes from. And it is a thrill; it’s a high.’ Later in the article, she adds, ‘I love it; I absolutely love it. I was born to regulate. I don’t know why, but that’s very true. So as long as I’m regulating, I’m happy.’” (Ramesh Ponnuru, “The Ergonomics of Joy” (second item), National Review Online Washington Bulletin, June 26). See also “Senate Blocks Ergonomic Safety Standards”, Reuters/Excite, June 22; Murray Weidenbaum, “Workplace stress is declining. Does OSHA notice?”, Christian Science Monitor, June 15.

June 28 – Giuliani’s blatant forum-shopping. Time was when lawyers showed a guilty conscience about the practice of “shopping” for favorable judges, and were quick to deny that they’d attempted any such thing, lest people think their client’s case so weak that other judges might have thrown it out of court. Now they openly boast about it, as in the case of New York City’s recently announced plans to sue gun makers. The new legal action, reports Paul Barrett of the news-side Wall Street Journal, could “prove especially threatening to the industry because Mr. Hess (Michael Hess, NYC Corporation Counsel) said the city would file it in federal court in Brooklyn. The goal in doing so would be to steer the suit to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who is known for allowing creative liability theories. … Mr. Hess said that New York will ask Judge Weinstein to preside over its suit because it is ‘related’ to the earlier gun-liability case [Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, now on appeal.]” (See also Nov. 1). (“New York City Intends to File Lawsuit Against Approximately 25 Gun Makers”, June 20 (fee)).

June 28 – From our mail sack: transactional-lawyer whimsy. New York attorney John Brewer writes: “This may just be a bit of transactional lawyer inside humor, or it may be evidence that the agnostic and individualistic themes in our culture have finally penetrated lawyers’ contract boilerplate (which for a variety of reasons tends to be an extraordinarily conservative-to-anachronistic form of stylized discourse). According to the April 2000 issue of Corporate Control Alert [not online to our knowledge], a provision in the documentation for the 1998 acquisition of International Management Services Inc. by Celestica Inc. contained a definition which read in part as follows:

“Material Adverse Change” or “Material Adverse Effect” means, when used in connection with the Company or Parent, as the case may be, any change or effect, as the case may be, caused by an act of God (or other supernatural body mutually acceptable to the parties) …

“In a sign that some of the old certitude remains, however,” John adds, “the accompanying article referred colloquially to the clause containing this language as a “hell-or-high-water” provision without any suggestion of mutually acceptable alternative places of everlasting torment.”

June 27– Welcome New Republic readers. Senior writer Jodie Allen of U.S. News & World Report tells us we’re her favorite website, which we consider proof we’re on the right track. Writing the New Republic’s “TRB from Washington” column this week, her theme is our legal system’s willingness to entertain all sorts of remarkable new rights-assertions that might have left Thomas Jefferson scratching his head, and she says readers who want more “can monitor such cases at Overlawyered.com.” We’ll help with the following thumbnail link-guide to cases mentioned in the column: drunken airline passenger, child left in hot van, right to non-sticky candy, bank robber and tear gas device, beer drinker’s restroom suit & Disneyland characters glimpsed out of uniform, haunted house too scary, high-voltage tower climber (& second case), killer whale skinny dip, obligation to host rattlesnakes, parrot-dunking, Ohio boys’ baseball team, school administrator’s felony, stripper’s rights, and murderer’s suit against her psychiatrists. (“Rights and Wrongs”, July 3). (DURABLE LINK)

June 27 – Reprimand “very serious” for teacher. Norwalk, Ct.: “After an in-house investigation that lasted more than a month, Carleton Bauer, the Ponus Ridge Middle School teacher who gave an 11-year-old girl money to purchase marijuana, has been reprimanded with a letter in his file.” The girl’s father, who was not notified of the disciplinary action taken against the teacher but was contacted by the press, felt the teacher’s union had been allowed to negotiate too lenient a treatment for Bauer, a 31-year teaching veteran, but Interim Superintendent of Schools William Papallo called the penalty “fair and equitable”, saying, “For someone who has worked so long, a reprimand is very serious”. (Ashley Varese, “Ponus teacher ‘lacked judgment’”, Norwalk Hour, June 16, not online).

June 27 – Peter McWilliams, R.I.P. Although (see above item) there are times when our authorities can be lenient toward marijuana-related infractions, it’s more usual for them to maintain a posture of extreme severity, as in the case of well-known author, AIDS and cancer patient, and medical marijuana activist Peter McWilliams, whose nightmarish ordeal by prosecution ended last week with his death at age 50. (William F. Buckley Jr., Sacramento Bee, June 21; Jacob Sullum, Reason Online/Creators Syndicate, June 21; John Stossel/ABC News 20/20, “Hearing All the Facts”, June 9; J.D. Tuccille, Free-Market.Net Spotlight; Media Awareness Project).

June 27 – AOL “pop-up” class action. In Florida, Miami-Dade County Judge Fredricka Smith has granted class action status to a suit against America Online, purportedly on behalf of all hourly subscribers who viewed the service’s “pop-up” ads on paid time. Miami attorney Andrew Tramont argues that it’s wrong for subscribers to be hit with the ads since they’re paying by the minute for access to the service (at least if they’re past their allotment of free monthly time), and “time adds up” as they look at them — this, even though most users soon learn it takes only a second to click off an ad (“No thanks”) and even though the system has for some time let users set preferences to reduce or eliminate pop-ups. The case seeks millions in refunds for the time customers have spent perusing the ads. According to attorney Tramont, “the practice amounts to charging twice for the same product. ‘AOL gets money from advertisers, then money from subscribers, so they’re making double on the same time,’ he said.” Please don’t anyone call to his attention the phenomenon of “magazines”, or we’ll never get him out of court. (“Florida judge approves class-action lawsuit against America Online”, CNN, June 25).

June 26 – Cash for trash, and worse? We’re glad we didn’t play a prominent role in defending Microsoft in its antitrust dispute, since we’d have found it very intrusive and inconvenient to have our garbage rifled by private investigators and our laptops stolen, as has happened lately to a number of organizations that have allied themselves with the software giant in the controversy (Declan McCullagh, “MS Espionage: Cash for Trash”, Wired News, June 15; Ted Bridis, “Microsoft-Tied Groups Report Weird Incidents”, Wall Street Journal, June 19 (fee); Glenn Simpson, “IGI Comes Under Scrutiny in Attempt To Purchase Lobbying Group’s Trash”, Wall Street Journal, June 19) (fee); Ted Bridis and Glenn Simpson, “Detective Agency Obtained Documents On Microsoft at Two Additional Groups”, Wall Street Journal, June 23 (fee)). Material surreptitiously obtained from the National Taxpayers Union, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Independent Institute soon surfaced in unflattering journalistic reportage on these groups in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and two attempts were also made to get night cleaning crews to sell the trash of the pro-Microsoft Association for Competitive Technology. They’re calling it “Gatesgate”.

In other news, the New York Observer checks into what would happen if the giant company tried to flee to Canada to avoid the Justice Department’s clutches (answer: probably wouldn’t make any difference, they’d get nailed anyway) (Jonathan Goldberg, “The Vancouver Solution”, June 12). And over at the Brookings Institution, it’s a virtual civil war with fellow Robert Crandall arguing against a breakup and fellow Robert Litan in favor (Robert Crandall, “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Break It Up”, Wall Street Journal, June 14; Robert Litan, “The rewards of ending a monopoly”, Financial Times, Nov. 24; Robert Litan, “What light through yonder Windows breaks?”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 11, all reprinted at Brookings site).

June 26 – “Was Justice Denied?”. Dale Helmig was convicted of the murder of his mother Norma in Linn, Mo. This TNT special June 20 impressed the Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz as making a powerful case for the unfairness of his conviction (“TV: Crime and Punishment”, June 19 (fee); TNT press release April 13). At the TNT site, links will lead you to more resources on errors of the criminal-justice system both real and alleged, including “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science” (DNA exonerations); “The Innocent Imprisoned“; Justice: Denied, The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted; CrimeLynx (criminal defense attorneys’ resource); and Jeralyn Merritt, “Could This Happen To Your Spouse or Child?” (Lawyers.com).

June 26 – Updates. Catching up on further developments in several stories previously covered in this space:

* In the continuing saga of leftist filmmaker Michael Moore (see Sept. 16), who made his name stalking the head of General Motors with a camera at social and business events (“Roger and Me”) and then called the cops when one of his own fired employees had the idea of doing the same thing to him, John Tierney of the New York Times has added many new details to what we knew before (“When Tables Turn, Knives Come Out”, June 17) (reg).

* Trial lawyers are perfectly livid about that New England Journal of Medicine study (see April 24) finding that car crash claimants experience less pain and disability under a no-fault system that resolves their claims relatively quickly. Now they’re throwing everything they can find at the study, lining up disgruntled former employees to question the researchers’ motives, saying the whole thing was tainted by its sponsorship by the Government of Saskatchewan (which runs a provincial auto insurance scheme), and so forth. (Association of Trial Lawyers of America page; Bob Van Voris, “No Gain, No Pain? Study Is Hot Topic”, National Law Journal, May 22).

* A Texas judge has entered a final judgment, setting the stage for appeal, against the lawyers he found had engaged in “knowingly and intentionally fraudulent” conduct in a product liability case against DaimlerChrysler where both physical evidence and witness testimony had been tampered with (see May 23). “Disbarment is a possible consequence, as are criminal charges, but none has yet been filed.” (Adolfo Pesquera, “Judge orders lawyers to pay $865,489″, San Antonio Express-News, Jun. 23). Update: see Mar. 17, 2003.

* It figures: no sooner had we praised the U.S. House of Representatives for cutting off funds for the federal tobacco suit (see Jun. 21) than it reversed itself and voted 215-183 to restore the funds (Alan Fram, “House OKs Funds for Tobacco Lawsuit”, AP/Yahoo, Jun. 23).

June 22-25 – Antitrust triumph. With great fanfare, the Federal Trade Commission announced this spring that it had broken up anticompetitive practices in the recording industry that were costing CD buyers from $2 to $5 a disc, saving consumers at least hundreds of millions of dollars. “So, how far have CD retail prices fallen since? Not a penny … Now, retail and music executives are accusing FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky of misleading consumers and feeding the media ‘artificially inflated’ pricing statistics, possibly to camouflage the lusterless findings of the FTC’s costly two-year investigation of CD advertising policies.” A commission spokesman says it can’t release the basis of its pricing study because it’s based on proprietary information. (Chuck Philips, “FTC Assailed on Failed CD Price Pledge”, Los Angeles Times, June 2).

June 22-25 – More trouble for “Brockovich” lawyers. Latest trouble for real-life L.A. law firm headed by Ed Masry, dramatized in the Julia Roberts hit film “Erin Brockovich“: a wrongful termination suit filed by former employee Kissandra Cohen, who at 21 years of age is the state’s youngest practicing lawyer. Cohen alleges that when she worked for Masry he “made repeated sexual advances, and when she did not respond, he fired her. Cohen, who is Jewish, also claims that Masry and other attorneys in his office made inappropriate comments about her Star of David necklace and attire” and kept copies of Playboy in the office lobby. Also recently, Brockovich’s ex-husband, ex-boyfriend and their attorney were arrested in a scheme in which they allegedly threatened that unless Masry and Brockovich saw that they were paid off they’d go to the press with scandalous allegations about the two (the sort of thing called “extortion” when it doesn’t take place in the context of a lawsuit). (“Sex Scandal for Brockovich Lawyer”, Mr. Showbiz, April 28).

June 22-25 – Compare and contrast: puppy’s life and human’s. Thanks to reader Daniel Lo for calling to our attention this pair of headlines, both on articles by Jaxon Van Derbeken in the San Francisco Chronicle: “S.F. Dog Killer Avoids Three-Strikes Sentence”, June 2 (Joey Trimm faced possible 25 years to life under “three strikes” law for fatal beating of puppy, but prosecutors relented and he was sentenced to only five years); “Man Gets Five Years In Killing of Gay in S.F.”, April 25 (“high-profile” homicide charges against Edgard Mora, whom prosecutors had “long labeled a hate-filled murderer”, resolved with five-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.)

June 21 – And don’t say “I’m sorry”. “Be careful,” said the night nurse. “They’re suing the hospital.” First-person account of how it changes the atmosphere on the floor when the family of a patient still under care decides to go the litigation route. Highly recommended (Lisa Ochs, “In the shadow of a glass mountain”, Salon, June 19).

June 21 – Good news out of Washington…. The House voted Monday to curb the use of funds by agencies other than Justice to pursue the federal tobacco lawsuit. The Clinton Administration claims the result would be to kill the suit (let’s hope so), but it and other litigation advocates will be working to restore the money at later stages of the appropriations process, and the good guys won by a margin of only 207-197 (June 19: Reuters; Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP; Washington Post) (It soon reversed itself and restored the funds: see June 26).

June 21 – …bad news out of New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has joined the ranks of gun control advocates willing to employ the brute force of litigation as an end run around democracy. “[F]ollowing the lead of many of the nation’s other large cities, [Giuliani] announced yesterday that his administration would file its own lawsuit against handgun manufacturers, seeking tens of millions of dollars to compensate New York City for injuries and other damage caused by illegal gun use.” Maybe he wouldn’t have made such a good Senator after all (Eric Lipton, “Giuliani Joins the War on Handgun Manufacturers”, New York Times, June 20).

June 21 – Stress of listening to clients’ problems. Dateline Sydney, Australia: “A court awarded [U.S.] $15,600 in damages to a masseuse who suffered depression after listening to clients talk about their problems. Carol Vanderpoel, 52, sued the Blue Mountains Women’s Health Center, at Katoomba, west of Sydney, claiming she was forced to deal with emotionally disturbed clients without training as a counselor or debriefing to cope with resultant stress.” (“Singing the Blues: Masseuse wins damages for listening to problems”, AP/Fox News, June 20; Anthony Peterson, “$26,000 the price of earbashing”, Adelaide Advertiser, June 20).


January 15-16 – “Blatant end-runs around the democratic process”. “If I had my way, there’d be laws restricting cigarettes and handguns,” writes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a prominent liberal, in this widely noted piece in the new American Prospect. But “[f]ed up with trying to move legislation, the White House is launching lawsuits to succeed where legislation failed. The strategy may work, but at the cost of making our frail democracy even weaker.”

The legal grounds for both the tobacco and gun suits “are stretches, to say the least. If any agreement to mislead any segment of the public is a ‘conspiracy’ under RICO, then America’s entire advertising industry is in deep trouble, not to mention HMOs, the legal profession, automobile dealers, and the Pentagon.” The federal gun case prefigures liability for the makers of such products as “alcohol and beer, fatty foods, and sharp cooking utensils.”

“These novel legal theories give the administration extraordinary discretion to decide who’s misleading the public and whose products are defective. You might approve the outcomes in these two cases, but they establish a precedent for other cases you might find wildly unjust….But the biggest problem is that these lawsuits are blatant end-runs around the democratic process…. In short, the answer is to make democracy work better, not give up on it”. (Robert Reich, “Smoking, guns”, The American Prospect, Jan. 17).

January 15-16 – “Public paranoia, and other losses”. George Williams of Cut Off, Louisiana is suing the Fair Grounds Corp. and assorted other defendants over two winning trifecta bets he placed at an off-track betting parlor which paid $80.80 and $36.60 when the television monitor suggested that the actual payout should be $121.20 and $41.80 respectively. The suit charges the race track and various other defendants with wire fraud, mail fraud, theft and breach of contract, and claims damages for “mental anguish and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of sleep, public paranoia, and other losses.” Williams’ attorney, Corey Orgeron of Cut Off, “said he simply wants to get to the bottom of the discrepancies between what Williams thought he won and what he was actually paid. ‘It very easily could be nothing more than simple negligence,’ Orgeron said. ‘I don’t think there was any criminal intent.’” Then why’d he throw in the charges of fraud, theft, and so on? (Joe Gyan Jr., “Man accuses OTB parlor of fraud”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 8) (& letter to the editor, Jan. 16, 2001).

January 15-16 – Poetry corner: Benjamin Franklin. Thanks to Tama Starr for suggesting this one:

The Benefit of Going to LAW

Two Beggars travelling along,
One blind, the other lame,
Pick’d up an Oyster on the Way
To which they both laid claim:
The matter rose so high, that they
Resolv’d to go to Law,
As often richer Fools have done,
Who quarrel for a Straw.
A Lawyer took it strait in hand,
Who know his Business was,
To mind nor one nor t’other side,
But make the best o’ th’ Cause;
As always in the Law’s the Case:
So he his Judgment gave,
And Lawyer-like he thus resolv’d
What each of them should have;

Blind Plaintiff, lame Defendant, share
The Friendly Laws’ impartial Care,
A Shell for him, a Shell for thee,
The Middle is the LAWYER’S FEE.

– Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733 (& see Jan. 26-27 update).

January 15-16 – Welcome HealthScout visitors. In an article on the “Internet addiction” defense (see Jan. 13-14) and other creative legal theories, the online health news service concludes: “If you wonder whether America’s legal system is getting out of control, check out Overlawyered.com (yes, that’s its real name) to read more about the Columbine case and other questionable legal tactics.” (Serena Gordon, “‘The Web Made Me Do It!’”, HealthScout, Jan. 13). Check out our subpage on law and medicine.

January 13-14 – Latest excuse syndromes. A Florida teenager accused of making a threat of violence in an email to Columbine High School was suffering from “Internet intoxication”, his lawyer plans to argue. Michael Ian Campbell was “role-playing” when he sent a message threatening to “finish” what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began in their massacre last April, according to Miami attorney Ellis Rubin. In earlier cases, Rubin offered “television intoxication” as a defense for a teenager eventually convicted of murdering an elderly neighbor, and defended a woman who eventually pleaded guilty to prostitution by saying that the antidepressant Prozac had turned her into a nymphomaniac. Meanwhile, a black Pennsylvania man accused of bank robbery is offering an insanity defense, saying that he had been driven to mental derangement by the racism of the white culture around him. “Police said [Brian] Gamble dressed as a woman when he went into the bank on July 3 and robbed tellers at gunpoint.” (Steve Gutterman, “Internet Defense in Columbine Case”, Washington Post, Jan. 12; “Robbery suspect claims racism made him insane”, AP/CNN, Dec. 23).

January 13-14 – “Litigation Bug Bites Into Democracy”. “Fueled by the success of the class-action war on Big Tobacco, class-action ‘lawfare,’ if you will, is also now being waged against — among others — gun manufacturers, makers of lead paint, Microsoft, the health maintenance organization industry, makers of genetically altered seed, the vitamin industry and the airlines.” Chicago Tribune editorial also points out, regarding charges that American businesses poured too much money into averting even minor Y2K glitches, that of course they were terrified out of any reasonable cost-benefit calculation: “it wasn’t just fear of the millennium bug. It was fear of lawyers waiting to pounce. Didn’t spend enough money to fix your computers, eh? Created a public safety problem, did you? Surely you knew your negligence would disrupt us. We’ll see you in court.” (editorial, Jan. 10).

January 13-14 – Huge jump in biggest jury verdicts. Survey by Lawyers’ Weekly USA finds the ten biggest jury awards to individual plaintiffs approached an aggregate $9 billion in 1999, nearly tripling from the amount in 1998. “Something totally unparalleled in history is going on in our legal system,” says the weekly’s publisher, not without a touch of magniloquence. Besides the Anderson (Chevy Malibu) verdict against GM, set by the jury at $4.9 billion and reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion (see Dec. 16, Aug. 27, July 10 commentaries), the other billion-dollar case was an award of $1.2 billion to the family of 32-year-old Jennifer Cowart, who died of burn injuries after a go-cart accident at a Pensacola, Fla. amusement park. (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 11).

January 13-14 – Watch your speech in Laguna Beach. The use of slurs, catcalls and other “hate speech” on the street is not in itself unlawful, but police in Laguna Beach, Calif. have begun documenting episodes of such verbal nastiness anyway on the theory that perpetrators often “graduate” to physical violence later on — a sort of gateway theory, as they call it in the drug war. Police Chief James Spreine said the database of hate-speech incidents will help his department identify suspects in serious crimes — raising the danger that constitutionally protected speech, although not to be punished itself, will bring with it something akin to official suspect status when unknown parties commit bias crimes later on (Mayrav Saar and Barbara Diamond, “Laguna Beach police will document hateful speech”, Orange County Register, Jan. 12).

January 13-14 – “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”. Uh, speak for yourself, would you mind, please? Last week’s flattering news-side Wall Street Journal profile of class-action impresario Michael Hausfeld (anti-guns, anti-HMOs, anti-biotech) got the most basic premise wrong about the class action biz when it said that “more and more frequently, they [referring to "people" or "society"] turn to courts when the traditional avenues of politics or activism seem obstructed.” But the “people” don’t hire class action lawyers; more typically those lawyers hire themselves, and if necessary go out and find a representative plaintiff to sue for. Of course these lawyers would love to establish that their activities simply coincide with what the public wants them to do, but why is the Journal‘s news side lending them a hand by assuming what is to be proven? (Paul Barrett, “Americans Turn To Lawyers To Cure Nation’s Social Ills”, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 4)

January 13-14 – Your fortune awaits in Internet law. Five years ago this Ohioan was toiling away as a computer operator for a sleep clinic, but now he’s moved on to a career in the fast-growing world of Internet law — representing a client who cybersquatted on such domain names as “dolphins.com” and “jets.com” and now wants major bucks from the football folks on the grounds that they interfered with his sale of the names. “Mr. DeGidio sees such issues as fertile ground for dispute.” (George J. Tanber, “Web challenges kindle this attorney’s interest”, Toledo Blade, Jan. 10).

January 13-14 –Overlawyered.com announcement list now hosted at ListBot. It was getting too big to be managed any other way — besides, this way you can volunteer fun demographic information about yourself. To join the list, look for the red Listbot button in the column at left and enter your email address.

January 13-14 –Correction: surname of Pennsylvania AG. Our January 10 report mistook the surname of Attorney General Mike Fisher of Pennsylvania. We’ve fixed it now. Our apologies.

January 12 – Finally! Reform may be in the wind for New York City’s patronage-ridden courts, following a burgeoning scandal in Brooklyn. Two top officials resigned last month from the law committee of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, complaining that despite their “unquestioned loyalty” to the party they’d been cut out of lucrative court assignments. The letter painted a damning picture of the operations of the city’s notoriously buddy-buddy system of fiduciary appointments, by which judges appoint clubhouse lawyers to fee-intensive positions managing the estates of decedents, orphans, failed businesses, foreclosed properties and other entities that can’t tend to their own affairs. Mayor Rudy Giuliani promptly called for reform to purge the system of its continuing machine taint, and now the state’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, has announced that she’s appointing an investigator with subpoena power to uncover improprieties and make the fiduciary appointment process worthy of public confidence. If that works, our friend Augeas has some stables that need cleaning out. Update Dec. 20, 2001: investigation results in report exposing abuses.

SOURCES: Alan Feuer, “2 Brooklyn Lawyers, Ex-Insiders, Outline a Court Patronage System”, New York Times, Jan. 5; Thomas J. Lueck, “Giuliani Urges Chief Judge to End Patronage in Courts”, New York Times, Jan. 6; Winnie Hu, “Political Favoritism by Judges Faces an Investigation”, New York Times, Jan. 11 (all Times links now dead); John Caher, “NYS Courts to Probe Judicial Appointments of Lawyers”, New York Law Journal, Jan. 11; Tracey Tully, “Judge To Probe Patronage”, New York Daily News, Jan. 11; Frederic U. Dicker and Maggie Haberman, “Top Judge Orders Probe of B’klyn Patronage Scandal”, New York Post, not dated.

January 12 – Disabled accommodation in testing. Sunday’s L.A. Times notices the trend: “The number of students who get extra time to complete the SAT because of a claimed learning disability has soared by more than 50% in recent years, with the bulk of the growth coming from exclusive private schools and public schools in mostly wealthy, white suburbs.” (Kenneth R. Weiss, “New Test-Taking Skill: Working the System”, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9; see our editor’s “Standard Accommodations“, Reason, February 1999.) The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the Law Schools Admissions Council for allegedly following overly rigid rules in responding to physically disabled applicants’ requests for extra time on the Law School Admissions Test. “We are extremely disappointed that the Department of Justice has decided to litigate this matter and even more disappointed that they issued a press release about the lawsuit before serving us with the complaint,” says the Council’s president. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Disabled Students Denied Accommodation to Take LSAT, Suit Says”, The Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Dec. 9). Columnist Robyn Blumner isn’t the only one reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”. (“The high cost of equality: our freedom”, St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 19).

January 12 – Ontario judge okays hockey-fan lawsuit. Justice Michel Charbonneau ruled that a lawsuit by season-ticket holders against player Alexei Yashin (see Oct. 20 commentary) can proceed even though the law in the area is “relatively undeveloped”. “This is groundbreaking because this is the first time we can examine an athlete’s state of mind regarding fans,” said attorney Arthur Cogan. “Does he ever think about fans’ interests?” Next up: lawsuits by inconvenienced customers against workers who go out on unauthorized strikes? (Kevin Allen, “Yashin to face fans’ discontent”, USA Today, Jan. 6; “Judge: Fans’ lawsuit against Yashin can proceed”, CBS SportsLine, Jan. 5).

January 12 – Warn and be sued. “When Gwinnett County police officer Gordon Garner III told clinical psychologist Anthony V. Stone during a fitness-for-duty interview that he had had a vision of killing his captain, and thoughts about killing eight to 10 others including the chief and a county commissioner, Stone took it seriously.” He “consulted a lawyer for the Georgia Psychological Association, Susan Garrett, who advised him he had a duty to warn the individuals Garner had named”, according to court papers. Two weeks after the initial interview, he did warn them — walking right into a lawsuit from Garner for breach of confidentiality which culminated last month in a jury award of $280,000. Sued if you do, sued if you don’t? “In previous reported cases in Georgia, mental health professionals have been sued for failing to warn third parties that they might be in danger; Stone was sued for issuing that precise warning.” (Trisha Renaud, “Ex-Cop Wins Rare Confidentiality Case”, Fulton County Daily Record, Jan. 5).

January 11 – Health plans rebuffed in bid to sue cigarette makers. Now we find out! Helping close the door on the premise of the state Medicaid suits (after that $246 billion horse has already escaped from the barn), the Supreme Court yesterday let stand lower-court rulings denying union health plans the right to sue tobacco companies to recoup smoking-related health outlays. (“Union health plans lose round with cigarette makers”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 10; Joan Biskupic, “Court Rejects Union Tobacco Suits”, Washington Post, Jan. 11). For a brief run-down of why these third-party payor claims have no law on their side, we recommend Judge Frank Easterbrook’s enjoyably abrasive 7th Circuit opinion, issued in November, dismissing suits filed by union funds and Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans in Illinois.

January 11 – Microsoft temps can sue for stock options. “In another victory for temporary workers at Microsoft, the Supreme Court today let stand a ruling that greatly expanded the number of employees who could sue the software giant to purchase stock options and get other benefits.” If you’re an employer who was counting on the old notion of freedom of contract to hold temps and independent-contractor employees to the benefits they bargained for, be afraid. (James V. Grimaldi, “High court rules 15,000 Microsoft temps can sue”, Seattle Times, Jan. 10; Dan Richman, “Microsoft ‘Permatemps” Win”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 11) (see also Aug. 19 commentary).

January 11 – “Update from the Year 2050″. The protagonist of this 1984-like tale wakes up to tepid home-brewed coffee: “Today, no house could be programmed to prepare scalding fluids. No ice cubes either: People choked on them and died. As Plaintiff in Chief Rodham Bush liked to say, ‘Extremes are unhealthy.’”. It was in the 00′s decade that the lawyers really took over: “By piling lawsuit atop lawsuit, the attorneys could bankrupt any company that tried to fight them….Politicians had discovered that by joining in the lawsuits, the government could take a cut of the settlements.” Now there was just one big company left, McNikeSoft, which efficiently settled hundreds of thousands of suits a day on the Litigation Exchange, and which the lawyers refrained from bankrupting because that would end the game. “Profits flowed efficiently from the real economy directly to the attorneys. Everybody was happy.” Hurry up and read this new satire by Jonathan Rauch before the folks he skewers find some way to sue him for writing it (National Journal, Jan. 7 — see Reason archive)

January 11 – Can they get a patent on that? “Two top executives and two high-level officers at a consulting firm that serves lawyers and insurance companies were indicted by a federal grand jury [in November] on charges of designing a computer program that automatically inflated the bills it sent to clients.” The indictment charges that a computer programmer at the firm, S.T. Hudson International Inc. of Wayne, Pa., “developed a program he called the ‘gooser’… which automatically multiplied every hour worked by a consultant by 1.15 and then added an extra half hour to the total hours,” with resulting overpayments by clients and affiliated companies totaling more than $320,000. (Shannon P. Duffy, “Consulting Firm Indicted for Inflating Bills Sent to Lawyers”, Legal Intelligencer (Philadelphia), Nov. 30).

January 11 – “Dear Abby: Please help…” “…I fell in love with a married man. He claimed he loved me. My husband caught us and now has filed for divorce. My lover called it quits and ran back to his wife.

“Can I sue my lover for breach of promise because he promised to get a divorce and marry me?” — Destroyed in the U.S.A.

“Dear Destroyed: I recommend against initiating such a lawsuit.”

– An entry, reprinted in its entirety, from “Dear Abby“, January 2.

January 11 – Welcome, Yahoo and About.com visitors. Our page on overlawyered schools has recently won listings at Yahoo “Full Coverage: Education Curriculum and Policy” and J. D. Tuccille’s popular Civil Liberties section at About.com.

January 10 – Pokémon litigation roundup. The Burger King Corporation last month recalled about 25 million pull-apart plastic balls containing the cartoon characters, which had been distributed as premiums with childrens’ meals, after a young child apparently suffocated on half of one of them. The company offered a small order of french fries in exchange for each returned ball, which did not save it from class action lawyers in Dallas who dashed at once to court, their named client a local mother whose son was entirely unharmed by the balls but who (or so the premise of the suit went) considered the french fries inadequate compensation for the toys’ return. (“Burger King Hit With Pokémon Lawsuit”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 30; Jenny Burg, “Dallas Mom Sues Burger King Over Poke Balls”, Texas Lawyer, Jan. 5).

In other Pokémon litigation news, showman Uri Geller, whose act is best known for his purported ability to bend spoons by the power of remote mind control, is threatening to sue the makers of the cards over the inclusion of the character Kadabra, which is shown wielding a spoon and which boasts “special mental powers: It plagues bystanders with a mysterious pain in the brain’”, to quote the New York Post. Japanese children are said to have nicknamed the character “Uri Geller”; “There’s no way that they’re allowed to do this,” Geller says his lawyer told him. (Lisa Brownlee, “Pokémon card trick makes magic man mad”, New York Post, Dec. 30). And the American Lawyer has now given a write-up to the recent imbroglio (see Oct. 13 commentary) in which class-actioneers Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach filed a lawsuit charging that the trading cards are a form of unlawful gambling, without realizing that a company it represented owned the licensing rights to the characters — with the result that it sued its own client for treble damages for alleged racketeering. (Sherrie Nachman, “Cartoon Conflicts”, American Lawyer, Dec. 20) (earlier Pokémon coverage: Dec. 16, Oct. 13, Oct. 1-3).

January 10 – Pennsylvania tobacco fees: such a bargain! “One lawyer spent 12 minutes reading the Wall Street Journal and billed $62. Another charged $290 for the hour he took identifying and ordering books.” Lawyers’ bills like that might stand in need of a little revising, you might think — but in the case of the Pennsylvania tobacco fees the revision was upward, from $7.1 million to a negotiated deal of $50 million. On a per-capita basis that still ranks among the lowest tobacco fees in the country, but eyebrows have been raised by the fact that the prominent and generally business-oriented law firms that handled the work for the state, Buchanan Ingersoll of Pittsburgh and Duane, Morris & Heckscher of Philadelphia, were selected in what critics say was not an open or competitive process, and happened to be major campaign contributors of Attorney General Mike Fisher, the one doing the selecting (Fisher also made the key decisions in the eventual negotiated fee settlement). “Obviously,” says one critic, Philadelphia attorney Lawrence Hoyle, Jr., “it was a political kind of deal.”

“The $50 million that Duane, Morris and Buchanan Ingersoll will share over the next five years dwarfs the combined total of the Ridge administration’s bills for outside legal counsel last year: about $35 million to 241 law firms, with none getting more than $2.3 million.” And by the time Pennsylvania sued, other states had developed the legal theories on which the case rested. Tobacco-fee zillionaire Joseph Rice, who represented many states in the affair, agrees that the late-filing Keystone State did not face as much legal risk as states that filed earlier, but says: “I don’t think we should quibble about it.” But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? (Glen Justice, “In tobacco suit, grumblings over legal fees”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 4)(& see Oct. 24, 2002).

January 10 – Back pay obtained for illegal aliens. Scoring an early win for its new policy of backing lawsuits by undocumented workers over the loss of jobs it was unlawful for them to hold in the first place, the federal government has extracted a $72,000 settlement from a Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites in Minnesota on behalf of nine illegal Mexican immigrants. The National Labor Relations Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged the hotel with firing the workers because they were leading a union organizing drive, along with other employment and labor law infractions. The workers are still in the country and are resisting a deportation order. (“Hotel Settles Illegal Aliens Case”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 7) (see Oct. 29, Oct. 28 commentary).

January 8-9 – OSHA at-home worker directive. No wonder the AFL-CIO spoke favorably of this abortive (see Jan. 6, Jan. 5) proposal; as recently as the 1980s it was calling for an outright ban on telecommuting. Communications Workers of America president Mort Bahr, for example, warned that allowing stay-home employment was dangerous “particularly if that worker wants to work at home”. (Quoted in James Bovard, “How Fair Are Fair Labor Standards?”, Cato Inst./Regulation mag.) “Traditionally, unions have opposed telecommuting/work-at-home programs because they fear that such programs represent a return to cottage industry piecework. A distributed workforce makes it more difficult for unions to organize, represent members, and police collective bargaining agreements”. (“Telecommuting and Unions”, Telecommute America California Style).

Curiously, the only newspaper we could find that commented favorably on the new OSHA intervention was Silicon Valley’s own San Jose Mercury News (link now dead) (cynics might point out that since at-home tech workers in Bakersfield, Boise and Bangalore directly compete with the face-to-face Valley culture, they’re not exactly the Merc‘s constituency). At other papers it was a more or less uniform hail of dead cats: the Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Hartford Courant (“Bureaucrats Gone Berserk”), Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Detroit News, Cincinnati Post, Denver Post, Washington Times, Arizona Republic, Birmingham News, as well as Sen. Kit Bond, the American Electronics Association (EE Times) and commentators Steve Chapman (quotes our editor), Dick Feagler, Marjie Lundstrom, Bruce Harmon (Bridge News), and Ken Smith (many of these links via Junk Science)(many links now dead).

When the OSHA letter hit the nation’s front pages, reports the Washington Post, “A number of companies immediately put on hold plans to expand telecommuting privileges to employees”. But the letter was hardly a frolic or detour on the part of some low-level Munchkin: the agency spent two years on it, and it was “considered a declaration of existing policy by OSHA officials”. Among the possible real-world effects of the letter, the Post quotes a Labor Department official as saying, is to have been “used by courts to make it easier to hold employers accountable for injuries that occur in home offices” — i.e., in litigation. And “since Labor Department officials had originally regarded the letter [as] a statement of existing policy, it is unclear whether withdrawing the letter had much practical effect.” (Frank Swoboda, “Labor Chief Retreats on Home Offices”, Washington Post, Jan. 6)

January 8-9 – Right to win unlimited carnival prizes. Florida’s Busch Gardens has put a limit of ten a year on the number of prizes — stuffed animals, football jackets and the like — that its patrons can win at its carnival games. One of the park’s frequent patrons, Herman James, is so adept at the games that he says he makes a side business of reselling the many prizes he wins. Now Mr. James is suing the park, saying the ten-prize-a-year limit is unfair to him. The park denies that its limit is directed specifically at Mr. James. (“Man sues Florida’s Busch Gardens for the right to win unlimited prizes”, AP/Court TV, Jan. 5)

January 8-9 – Shenanigans on the bayou. Someone — who was it? — posed as a staff person with the clerk of court’s office and placed calls to potential jurors’ residences, inquiring about their plans, while a multimillion-dollar asbestos case was going through its jury-selection stage this fall in Plaquemine, La. Soon ugly charges were flying back and forth between Exxon Corp. and prominent Dallas plaintiff’s firm Baron & Budd. The case has been referred to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which regulates the state’s lawyers, but it’s expected to be at least a year before the ODC completes its investigation. A year? They sure take their time down there (Angela Ward, “Baron & Budd’s Bayou Blues”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 11).

January 8-9 – No warning given to cousin-spouses. 22-year-old Leslie Zambrana and her husband Alfredo are seeking millions of dollars in a lawsuit against the University of Miami School of Medicine, Jackson Memorial Hospital and a health clinic for failing to warn them that their daughter might be born with Down’s Syndrome, the genetic disorder whose effects include mental retardation. The suit contends that even though Leslie told the clinic’s physician that she and her husband, the baby’s father, are first cousins to each other, she was not administered a recommended “triple screen” blood test for high-risk mothers that might have detected the syndrome and caused her to seek an abortion. The couple’s grandparents are also first cousins to each other. (Jay Weaver, “Married cousins sue over baby’s disability”, Miami Herald, Jan. 3).

January 7 – Hire that felon, or else. Our editor’s December Reason column, now online, looks at what happened after the state of Wisconsin passed a first-of-its-kind law forbidding employers in most circumstances from discriminating against job applicants on the grounds of those applicants’ criminal records. Among the consequences: the cash settlement won by the notorious “Halloween killer” from a company that declined to hire him on his release from prison, and a case where the Milwaukee school system learned it was not free to deny a job to a man convicted of felony child endangerment. (Walter Olson, “Reasonable Doubts: Felon Protection”, Reason, Dec. 1999) (see also our Sept. 24 commentary).

January 7 – Protests just aren’t what they used to be. We reported in our November 3 installment on how flag-burning protesters in at least one sizable American city (Las Vegas) are now legally required to take out advance environmental permits — smoke emissions into the atmosphere, and all that. Now John Leo, in a U.S. News column on the way many campus newspapers have faced intimidation and thefts of their stock after printing material that offends identity groups, tells what happened after “the Ohio State Lantern [ran] a comic strip poking fun at the women’s studies department….A noisy crowd took their protest to the front porch of cartoonist Bob Hewitt and attempted to burn a bra, but thanks to consumer protection regulations, the flame-retarding brassiere failed to ignite.” (John Leo, “The 1999 Sheldon”, U.S. News, Jan. 3)

January 7 – GQ on Gov. Bush, Karl Rove and litigation reform. The new January issue of GQ profiles Karl Rove, key strategist in the George W. Bush campaign and “easily the team’s most pivotal player after W. himself.” Aside from the intrinsic interest of the following passage, it allows our editor to get away with more shameless self-promotion about how his book The Litigation Explosion (buy it now!) gets read in high places:

“Of the four issues he ran on in ’94 [education, welfare, juvenile justice, tort reform], I can honestly say I played a role in only one of them,” Rove told interviewer Robert Draper. “I’m a huge tort-reform advocate, and I said, ‘See what you’ve talked about here — a thread of responsibility runs through all of these. We have a society where people are being held responsible for their actions not to the degree of their responsibility but to the degree of their monetary worth, and someone’s life’s work can disappear overnight because he happens to have deep pockets and gets hit by junk and frivolous lawsuits.’ And I gave him Wally Olson’s book [The Litigation Explosion] and a couple of others. He had feelings about the topic, but he hadn’t thought about it. And look — that’s the way the best candidates are. They need people around them to execute the mechanics of the campaign, the tactical considerations . And the strategy is born out of their heart, soul and gut.” (Robert Draper, “W’s Brain”, GQ, Jan. 2000 — not online)

January 6 – “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing’”. A panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has thrown out a settlement in a class-action suit over the mailing by Equifax Check Services Inc. of allegedly unlawful debt collection letters. Judge Frank Easterbrook, joined by Judges Richard Posner and Ilana Diamond Rovner, said the settlement provided no tangible benefit for the 214,000 class members while funneling fees, later determined to be $78,000, to the lawyer for the class. Equifax agreed to stop using a form letter and to donate $5,500 to a law school consumer clinic; “Crawford and his attorney were paid handsomely to go away; the other class members received nothing (not even any value from the $5,500 ‘donation’) and lost the right to pursue class relief,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. (opinion, Cases Nos. 99-1973 & 99-2122, decided January 3; Patricia Manson, “Accord tossed: Class members ‘got nothing’”, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Jan. 4)

January 6 – Haunted house too scary. “A woman suing Universal Studios contends the theme park operator’s annual Halloween Horror Nights haunted house attraction was too scary and caused her emotional distress.” Cleanthi Brooks, 57, says that when she and her granddaughter were visiting the Florida park in 1998, an employee wielding a (chainless) chainsaw chased them toward an exit, with the result that they slipped on a wet spot and suffered unspecified physical injuries. (Tim Barker, “Universal fall leads to lawsuit”, Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 5; “Woman sues haunted house over injuries, emotional distress”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 5)

January 6 – OSHA backs off on home office regulation. Moving quickly to nip mounting public outrage, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman now explains that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration never intended to bring home working conditions under full-fledged federal regulation — why, the idea never even crossed their minds! The advisory letter to that effect has been withdrawn, but Republicans on the Hill are promising hearings. (“Labor Department does about-face on home office letter”, AP/CNN, Jan. 5; see yesterday’s commentary)

January 6 – Backyard trash burning. Researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Health report that the burning of ordinary trash by households, still a common practice in many rural areas, is an unexpectedly important likely source of release into the atmosphere of polychlorinated compounds such as dioxin, long a subject of regulatory scrutiny because of their potential toxicity. A family of four burning trash in a barrel on their property “can potentially put as much dioxin and furan into the air as a well-controlled municipal waste incinerator serving tens of thousands of households”. (“Backyard Burning Identified As Potential Major Source Of Dioxins”, American Chemical Society/Science Daily, Jan. 4)

January 5 – Beyond parody: “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”. “Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site, according to a Labor Department advisory,” reports the Washington Post. The policy covers not only telecommuters but even the parent who briefly takes work home to be with a sick child. “Although the advisory does not provide specifics, in effect it means that employers are responsible for making sure an employee has ergonomically correct furniture, such as chairs and computer tables, as well as proper lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation systems in the home office.” Employers may also be responsible for identifying and repairing such hazards as, for example, rickety stairs that lead down to a basement home office. They “must also provide any needed training to comply with OSHA standards, and may have to ensure that the home work space has emergency medical plans and a first-aid kit.”

The new directive “makes sense”, says AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario: “Employers have to provide employees a workplace free from hazards.” Pat Cleary, vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, takes a different view: “This is nuts”. And at Slate “Breakfast Table”, Matt Cooper is almost equally succinct: “This is one of those regulatory rulings that sets liberalism back a generation.” Washington lawyer Eugene Scalia calls the development “part of a string of recent initiatives intended to court union leaders as the presidential primaries approach.”

Sources: Frank Swoboda and Kirstin Downey Grimsley, “OSHA Covers At-Home Workers”, Washington Post, Jan. 4; Slate “Breakfast Table”, Jan. 4 (third item); “Workplace Rules Protect Home Office”, AP/FindLaw, Jan. 4; “Workplace Safety Rules Cover Telecommuters — OSHA”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 4; Eugene Scalia, “Gore, Unions Invite OSHA to Your Home” (op-ed), Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5 (online subscription required).

Sequel: faced with mounting public outrage, the Department of Labor announced within 24 hours that it was withdrawing the new directive and rethinking its policy (see January 6 commentary)

January 5 – Calif. state funds used to compile tobacco “enemies list”. The Daily News of Los Angeles reported last month that the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights Foundation, a Berkeley advocacy group, has received $1.2 million from the state of California over the past four years to track and counter critics of “tobacco control”. Among its activities: “[m]onitoring people who attended and spoke on tobacco issues at city council meetings in cities throughout the state”, “[i]nvestigating a federal judge in North Carolina who issued a ruling in a case involving second-hand smoke,” and “[i]ncorrectly accusing John Nelson, a spokesman for former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, of being on the payroll of the tobacco industry. After Nelson complained, the foundation apologized.”

A state official acknowledges that the private foundation has been asked to monitor groups that have “interfered in tobacco control activities” — such “interference” taking the form, for example, of opposing municipal smoking-ban ordinances. Steve Thompson, vice president for government affairs of the California Medical Association, called the program “a political surveillance operation on people that this group perceived as unsympathetic to the anti-smoking movement.” Among those who learned that his name was on the resulting lists was Los Angeles attorney Bradley Hertz, who led the opposition to an anti-smoking ordinance in Long Beach but says he was erroneously listed in the advocacy group’s reports as a participant in pro-tobacco efforts on a statewide level; Hertz says that in his view public funds should not be used to “spy on citizens”. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, went further, charging that the dossier-compiling “smack[ed] of Gestapo tactics…. Taxpayers are actually financing an abuse of government power.” However, some on the other side dismissed the criticism and said they found nothing improper about the program. “To protect the public interest, there must be independent monitoring of these front groups — the job cannot be left to newspapers or public officials,” said Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles).

In North Carolina, many attorneys “leapt to the defense” of U.S. District Judge William Osteen, who the Nonsmokers Rights group targeted with an exposé after he handed down a 1998 ruling overturning a federal report on secondhand smoke. “To me it’s just one more example of a focused interest group trying to intimidate judges,” said the recently retired chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Burley Mitchell. “It’s part of the meanness that’s crept into public life at all levels.”

Sources: Terri Hardy, “Smokers’ Spy Tax; Using Tax Funds for ‘Enemies List’ Not What Public Intended, Critics Say”, Daily News (Los Angeles), Dec. 6; and “Group Assailed for Sloppy Work; Man Says Organization Hurt His Reputation When it Got Facts Wrong”, sidebar to above, same date (fee-based archive, search Daily News file on “Nonsmokers Rights Foundation”); same, reprinted as “Tax-funded group had ‘enemies list’”, Orange County Register, Dec. 6 (fee-based archive, see above); David Rice, “Lawyers back N.C. judge on anti-smoking group’s ‘hit’ list”, Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, Dec. 9, link now dead. See also “Tobacco industry influence and income on decline in California”, press release, Oct. 12, for an account of “research” at the Univ. of California, S.F., into constitutionally protected advocacy and campaign contributions from tobacco sources; the work was funded by the tax-supported National Cancer Institute as well as the American Cancer Society.

January 5 – New page on Overlawyered.com: cyberlaw. The legal woes of such class-action defendants as Microsoft and Toshiba, liability for improper linking and non-handicap-compliant web design, domain-name squabbles, state-of-the-art ways for your litigators to sift through your enemies’ and competitors’ internal emails, and other news of the growing inroads being made against America’s most successful business, high-tech, by its second most successful business, litigation.

January 4 – Gun-buying rush. “More than a million Americans asked for background checks so they could buy guns in December, a surge insiders say has something to do with Millennium mania, but more to do with pending litigation,” Reuters reports. “Current and pending litigation…is making many consumers rush to buy arms before any anti-gun verdicts or new laws further restrict their purchase,” in the view of a spokesman for gunmaker Sturm, Ruger & Co. Better exercise those Second Amendment rights before mayors, trial lawyers and Clinton cabinet secretaries take ‘em away for good! Yet such a result is far from the outcome of any democratic decision process; indeed, senior analyst H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis) cites the results of a poll conducted by the Tarrance Group finding firearms manufacturer liability a singularly unpopular idea — “only 5 percent [of respondents] feel that manufacturers or retailers should be held responsible for firearm misuse”.

A second Reuters report, from London, suggests the havoc litigation can wreak on its targets’ businesses through its sheer uncertainty, independent of outcome. British-based conglomerate Tomkins PLC would like to sell its U.S. handgun maker Smith & Wesson, according to the Financial Mail on Sunday. But the newspaper “said the prospect of class action lawsuits against gun makers in the United States could block any sale of Smith & Wesson. ‘Tomkins will (sell Smith & Wesson) if it can, but until the lawsuits are settled, it may be difficult to sell,’ [a] source close to Tomkins was quoted as saying.”

Sources: “Century End, Lawsuit Threats Spark Gun Sales Spike”, Reuters/FindLaw, Dec. 28; H. Sterling Burnett, “Latest Gun Lawsuits Leading Us Down a Slippery Slope,” Houston Chronicle, Dec. 11, 1999; Burnett, NCPA op-ed, Dec. 12; “U.S. gun maker sale mulled”, Reuters/CNNfn, Jan. 2.

January 4 – Lawsuits over failing grades. In Bath Township, Ohio, 15-year-old Elizabeth Smith and her mother Betsy Smith have sued the Revere School District and 11 teachers over the girl’s failing grades. The suit, which seeks $6 million, says the school’s grading practices punished the girl for her frequent lateness and absences even though “Elizabeth has chronic tonsillitis that caused her to miss school, and she has had to stay home in the mornings to put her twin siblings on their elementary school bus because her mom, a single parent, had to be at work,” said her lawyer, James Childs. And Kerry Grandahl has sued the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences after her dismissal for poor exam scores, charging that under the Americans with Disabilities Act the school should have accommodated her “exam phobia,” which she says was triggered by depression. Because the exam room was noisy and thronged with other students, Kerry “could hardly concentrate, much less remember what she knew,” according to the suit filed by attorney Nicholas Kelley, which faults the school for not allowing her to take exams in smaller rooms with her own monitors. (Donna J. Robb, “Student fails over failing grades”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dec. 8; Shelley Murphy, “Ex-student sues college for ignoring ‘test phobia’”, Boston Globe, Dec. 21).

January 4 – Expert witnesses and their ghostwriters. Critics have long voiced alarm about the way American lawyers can orchestrate the testimony of expert witnesses they hire. In a recent case in Michigan a federal magistrate judge threw out the testimony of an expert hired by plaintiffs in a “vanishing-premium” case against Jackson National Life Insurance Co. The magistrate found that the report filed by actuary Philip Bieluch avowing his opinion as to the facts of the Jackson case had improperly reused verbiage from a report he had filed for the same lawyers in a separate case in Iowa, and was “substantially similar” to the language of a report filed by an entirely different expert in a Louisiana case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Scoville concluded that the lawyers themselves had furnished Bieluch with the wordings: “This is one of the most egregious cases of providing witness-for-hire testimony that I’ve ever seen, and at some point the courts have to say that enough is enough,” he said. The plaintiff’s executive committee in the Jackson National litigation included representatives of four firms, including well-known class-action powerhouse Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. (Emily Heller, “An Insurance Expert Is Bounced”, National Law Journal, Oct. 28).

January 3 – Lawyers for famine and wilderness-busting? “Pitched on its environmental merits, the class-action lawsuit filed [last month] against Monsanto would be thrown out in short order,” argues Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute. “So the lawyers dressed it up as an antitrust case instead.” Class-action high rollers such as Washington’s Michael Hausfeld have lent their assistance to longtime ludfly Jeremy Rifkin in organizing the suit. “They aren’t trying to save free markets from a monopoly, and the last thing they want is more competition in this field. What Mr. Rifkin is after is something even less competitive than a monopoly. He wants nobody in the genetic technology business at all.” If that happens, lawyers will have managed to stop today’s best hope — given the new methods’ success in boosting crop yields — for enabling the Third World to feed itself without pushing its agriculture into yet more wilderness.

“Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of this whole farce,” writes “Moneybox” columnist James Surowiecki at Slate, “is Rifkin’s use of the word ‘populist’ to describe the suit” — which, after all, seeks to shift power away from elected officials and farming populations and into the hands of elite lawyers and activists who effectively appointed themselves. Surowiecki calls the action and its arguments “spurious”, a “publicity stunt” and “a haphazard and scattershot collection of charges that might have been designed to demonstrate the excesses to which the U.S. legal system can be driven.”

Meanwhile, the world’s most prominent environmental group, the million-donor, supposedly respectable Greenpeace, has been openly conducting property-destroying sabotage against biotech installations in the United Kingdom; the “direct action” bug has now crossed the Atlantic, and last year vandals struck more than a dozen crop sites in the United States.

Sources: Philip Brasher, “Antitrust lawsuit to fight biotech farming”, AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review, Sept. 14; “Rifkin sues Frankenfood giant”, Reuters/Wired News, Dec. 14, link now dead; Peter Huber, “Ecological Eugenics”, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20, now reprinted at Manhattan Institute site; James Surowiecki, “Jeremy Rifkin’s Spurious Suit Against Monsanto”, Slate, Dec. 20; Michael Fumento, “Crop busters”, Reason, January; anti-biotech site Genetech.

January 3 – Overlawyered.com forums on hold for now. Over the holiday weekend we attempted to install an upgrade for this site’s bulletin board software. Bad move: we managed instead to knock out the forums entirely, and haven’t even succeeded in figuring out yet what went wrong. We’d like to keep the forums idea going, but are mulling over a number of options at this point, including the possibility of forums hosted off-site, which might lessen the demand on our already overstretched techie skills. Advice from experienced forum-managers is welcome.

January 3 – This side of parodies. Calls for a ban on lawyer jokes as hate speech? A Million Lawyer March on Washington to protest anti-attorney stereotyping? Well, maybe not yet, but it can be hard to pick out which elements of this whimsical column are based on fact and which parts are invention. (Richard Dooling, “When you prick us…”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).


November 15 – Class-action coupon-clippers. Hard-hitting page-one Washington Post dissection of class-action abuse, specifically the “coupon settlements” by which lawyers claim large but notional face-value benefits for the represented class, which can serve as a predicate for high fees even if few consumers ever take advantage of the benefits. “The record in one case, against ITT Financial Corp., showed that consumers redeemed only two of 96,754 coupons issued, a redemption rate of 0.002 percent.” Settlement-confidentiality rules often make it impossible to learn how many coupons were redeemed. Groups like Public Citizen and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, normally closely aligned with plaintiffs’-side interests, are crusading against the coupon abuses, fearing they’ll erode public support for the class action device and “sour the public” on the whole system.

The piece includes a profile of Chicago lawyer Daniel Edelman, who’s won millions in fees in about thirty consumer lawsuits, and is variously called by consumerist critics “the Darth Vader of class action settlements” and “the poster child for how to rip off consumers under the guise of helping them”: “I can think of no plague worse than to have a court impose the likes of Daniel Edelman…on absent and unsuspecting members of a class,” said one judge in a lawsuit against Citibank. Edelman was among the plaintiff’s lawyers in the famed BancBoston Mortgage case, whose outcome was described by federal judge Milton Shadur (who was not involved in it) as “appalling” and “astonishing”: “The principal real-money beneficiaries of the settlement,” Judge Shadur wrote, “turned out to be the class counsel themselves.” The consumer who originally objected to that settlement, Dexter Kamilewicz of Maine, “chose not to comment for this article, noting that Edelman’s firm had countersued him for $25 million. That case is settled, but he said he feared landing in court yet again.” (For more on lawsuits filed by class action lawyers against their critics, see Nov. 4 commentary). (Joe Stephens, “Coupons Create Cash for Lawyers”, Washington Post, Nov. 14, link now dead)

November 15 – Link your way to liability? Daniel Curzon-Brown, a professor of English, has sued TeacherReview.com, a student-run “course critique” site that provides a forum for anonymous praise and criticism of faculty at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) and San Francisco State University. “Free speech is great, but this is not about free speech,” said Brown’s lawyer, Geoffrey Kors, saying his client had been falsely labeled racist and mentally ill, among other damaging charges. (“Other teachers were called ‘womanizers,’ ‘reportedly homicidal’ and ‘drugged out.’”) In one of the suit’s more ambitious angles, the lawyers have joined CCSF as a defendant on the grounds that it “allow[ed] one of its student clubs to provide a link to the review site on a college-hosted Web page” which “helped to create the appearance of official backing for the site”. (“Teacher sues over ‘racist’ Web review”, Reuters/ZDNet, Oct. 21 — full story). Update Oct. 10, 2000: Curzon-Brown agrees to drop suit.

November 15 – Are they kidding, or not-kidding? We’ve read over both these opinion pieces carefully, and here are our tentative conclusions. We think Nancy Giuriati, writing in the Chicago Tribune‘s “Voice of the People”, probably is kidding when she suggests overeating be addressed as a public health problem through lawsuits against food companies along the lines of the anti-smoking crusade. (“Treat Eaters Like Smokers”, Nov. 9). On the other hand, we think Ted Allen, writing in the Legal Times of Washington, probably isn’t kidding when he suggests fans file class-action suits against hard-luck sports teams like the Boston Red Sox and New Orleans Saints. (“Sue da Bums?”, Nov. 1). It could be, however, that we’ve got things upside down — that Mr. Allen is kidding, while Ms. Giuriati isn’t. If you think you can help us out, or wish to call our attention to other who-knows-whether-they’re-joking proposals for the further extension of litigation (entries from law reviews especially welcome!), send your emails to AreTheyKidding -at -overlawyered – dot – com. Update Apr. 11, 2002: Ms. Giuriati writes in to say she wasn’t kidding.

November 15 – Gimme an “S”, “U”, “E”. Latest lawsuit over not making the high school cheerleading squad filed by Merissa D. Brindisi and her father, Richard, who claim it was arbitrary and unfair for Solon, Ohio, school officials to have used teacher evaluations as one factor in deciding who got on the squad. Another suit by an unsuccessful cheerleader contender was filed last month in nearby Lorain County, but was dismissed. (Mark Gillispie, “Solon ex-cheerleader, father file suit”, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nov. 10 — full story.)

November 13-14 – Fins circle in water. Hoping to piggyback on Judge Jackson’s Microsoft findings of fact and attracted by the treble damages provided by antitrust law, “veterans from the cigarette wars are plotting to sue the company in a wave of private litigation. If the onslaught unfolds as expected, teams of lawyers will turn Microsoft into the next Philip Morris, tangling the company in courts across the country.” David Segal, “New Legal Guns Train on Microsoft”, Washington Post, Nov. 12 — link now dead). Same day, same paper, same byline: another profile of emerging trial lawyer strategy of mounting assault on their targets’ stock price in order to force them to the negotiating table (see “Deal with us or we’ll tank your stock“, Oct. 21). The announcement of a major trial lawyer offensive against HMOs destroyed $12 billion of value in a single day as the market reacted. “Most of the companies have yet to recover.” (David Segal, “Lawyers pool resources, leverage settlements”, Washington Post, Nov. 12, link now dead).

On Friday the stock of big New Orleans-based engineering and construction company, McDermott International Inc., important in the offshore oil business, fell by 35.5 percent following a 26.7 percent drop the previous day to hit a 10-year low. The company disclosed lower earnings and “said in its earnings statement that the settlement of asbestos claims was using up a growing amount of the cash flow of its Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) subsidiary”, one of the nation’s best known makers of power plants. “This unquantifiable asbestos liability puts a whole new spin on things. [McDermott] becomes an asbestos liability valuation play rather than an earnings recovery play,” said analyst Arvind Sanger of brokerage firm Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette, who added that he thought the market had overreacted to the uncertainty. (“Asbestos Claim Worries Hurt McDermott”, FindLaw/Reuters, Nov. 12, link now dead)

November 13-14 – Update: ADA youth soccer case. Bang! Ouch! As reported here a week ago, parents insisted that 9-year-old Ryan Taylor, who suffers from cerebral palsy, be allowed onto soccer team despite administrators’ fears of injuries from his metal walker. Now they’ve filed suit under federal Americans with Disabilities Act (see “After Casey Martin, the deluge“, Nov. 5-7). (“Parents Sue Over Son’s Soccer Ban”, AP/FindLaw, Nov. 12, link now dead).

November 13-14 – Risks of harm. “One woman manager whom I spoke to, an architect who has worked in construction for a number of years, put it this way: ‘When a woman comes to me with a complaint, I want first of all to make sure that no harm comes to the woman. But I want to make sure that no harm comes to the man, too. Because if a charge of sexual harassment goes into his folder, he may never get another promotion in his entire life.’ [emphasis in original] — from the forthcoming book What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: Or a Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, by Joan Kennedy Taylor (see yesterday’s entry).

November 12 – Turning the tables. Automaker DaimlerChrysler has sued plaintiff’s attorneys and a individual named client who it says cost it millions of dollars and harmed its reputation by naming it in what is says was a meritless suit. In June, the locally based law firm of Greitzer & Locks and Maryland attorney William Askinazi filed a class-action suit in Philadelphia against DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors and GM’s subsidiary Saturn alleging that the companies’ seat design was defective and unsafe. Similar suits were filed in other states, and lawyers were quoted in one story as claiming the aggregate value of their claims could amount to $5 billion. But DaimlerChrysler and Ford say they were dropped from the Philadelphia case after the named plaintiff, Brian Lipscomb, was shown never to have owned cars manufactured by either automaker.

The German-U.S. company has been on something of a mission recently to fight what it sees as abusive litigation. It recently secured dismissal of an Illinois class action over allegedly excessive engine noise and in 1996 unsuccessfully sought fees after securing dismissal of a Seattle class action that turned out to have been filed without client permission. It succeeded last year in winning an $850,000 judgment against two lawyers in St. Louis who it alleged had taken confidential documents while working for one of its outside law firms and then used that information to file class-action suits against the automaker. “Class-action lawsuits should be used to resolve legitimate claims and not serve as a rigged lottery for trial lawyers,” said Lew Goldfarb, DaimlerChrysler vice president and associate general counsel, in a statement this week. “For too long, trial lawyers have been exploiting class actions, turning these lawsuits into a form of legalized blackmail. They launch frivolous cases because they believe that just the threat of massive class actions filed in many states can coerce a company into settlement. It’s time they started paying for some of the costs of abusing our legal system.” “DaimlerChrysler sues lawyers over lawsuit”, Reuters/Findlaw, Nov. 10, link now dead; “Automakers sued for allegedly defective seats”, Detroit News, Jun. 26)

November 12 – Suppression of conversation vs. improvement of conversation. “Another difficulty in dealing with sexual harassment as a legal problem is that almost all people accused of harassment, from the one whose joke is misunderstood to the hard-core opportunistic harasser…don’t believe they are hurting anyone. [emphasis in original] And we know from our experiences with alcohol and drug prohibition that people whose behavior is regulated and who don’t believe they are hurting anyone else overwhelmingly evade and resent the regulations….If you tell people that the way in which they relate to each other naturally is against the law, their immediate reaction is to think the law intrusive. If, by contrast, you tell people that they may have misunderstood each other but that they can learn to communicate more clearly, you are offering them a new skill without blaming half of them in advance.” — from What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: Or a Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment, by Joan Kennedy Taylor, a book to be published this month by New York University Press and the Cato Institute.

November 11 – We didn’t mean those preferences! At Boalt Hall, the law school of U.C. Berkeley, it’s de rigueur to consider race, gender and various other official preferences as entirely constitutional as a way of balancing out past collective hardship. However, there’s one form of official preference you’d better not speak well of lest you risk ostracism: veterans’ preference. “If you, despite your well-intentioned, fine-toothed combing of the Constitution, just can’t find a legal rule that says that veterans’ preferences are impermissible gender discrimination, then that is sexism. If you think that these veterans’ preferences are acceptable as a matter of policy — for the liberals who are willing to concede that there is a difference between constitutional permissibility and policy advisability — then that is extreme sexism.” — contributor Heather McCormick in The Diversity Hoax: Law Students Report from Berkeley, edited by David Wienir and Marc Berley (Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, 1999).

November 11 – Microsoft roundup. Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute, author of Law and Disorder in Cyberspace, argues in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that a breakup of the company would in fact be less destructive of value than seemingly more modest remedies that might require the company to prenegotiate its future business relationships or even its software revisions with competitors’ lawyers: “Complex remedial decrees invariably kick off endless rounds of follow-up bickering. Costs mount quickly. Private lawsuits follow. And antitrust law awards triple damages.” (“Breaking Up Isn’t hard to Do”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10 — requires online subscription). “Two branches of the federal government, which is a case study in institutional sclerosis, are lecturing Microsoft on the virtues and modalities of innovation,” notes George Will (“Risks of Restraining”, Washington Post, Nov. 9, link now dead). “The dynamism of technology long ago rendered the entire case moot,” argues a Detroit News editorial. “…It is doubtful, for example, that America Online would have paid $10 billion for Netscape if Microsoft’s Bill Gates had indeed rendered the Navigator [browser] worthless.” (“Microsoft: Punishing Success”, Nov. 9). Declan McCullagh at Wired News finds it surprising that the judge was so dismissive of the prospects of Linux, the open-source competitor to Windows (“Judge Jackson: Linux Won’t Last”, Nov. 8).

November 11 – Accommodating theft. In New Jersey, the Office of Attorney Ethics is seeking the disbarment of Tenafly lawyer Charles Meaden, who was arrested in 1996 for trying to buy $5,600 worth of golf clubs with a stolen credit card number. Mr. Meaden’s attorney, Linda Wong, argues that her client suffered from bipolar illness and was in a manic state at the time of the theft due to a change in his medication. “The panel has to send a signal to the public that disabilities can be accommodated.” The ethics body counters that Mr. Meaden’s use of the stolen number showed considerable planning, and added that he’d applied for guns four times in the two years before the arrest, each time denying that he’d been treated for psychiatric conditions. His lawyer’s response? Mr. Meaden, she said, was relying on his doctor’s assurance that depression was “not a psychiatric condition”, besides which “it was understandable that Meaden did not disclose his psychiatric history because the mentally ill face discrimination.” (Wendy Davis, “The Case of the Stolen Credit Card: Mental Illness or Well-Planned Heist?”, New Jersey Law Journal, Oct. 21 — full story)

November 10 – $625,000 an hour asked for time on stopped elevator. Nicholas White, 34, a production manager at Business Week, has filed suit asking $25 million from the owners of Rockefeller Center over an incident last month in which he got stuck on an elevator late one Friday and remained there, pushing buttons and banging on the door, for 40 hours before any building employees noticed. He had only a pack of Life Savers and three cigarettes to see him through the ordeal. “When he had to go to the bathroom, he would pry open the doors a little,” a friend of his told the New York Post. White’s lawyer, Kenneth P. Nolan, said last week that his client was “still in a state of shock” and “has not gone back to work”. (“Floor, please”, Fox News/Reuters, Oct. 21 (link now dead); “Man Trapped in Elevator Wants $25M”, AP/Washington Post, Nov. 3, link now dead; “Man, trapped in New York elevator 40 hours, sues”, Reuters/San Jose Mercury News, Nov. 4, (link now dead; Philip Delves Broughton, “Editor sues for $25-million after 40-hour elevator terror”, National Post (Canada) (originally Daily Telegraph, London), Nov. 6, link now dead)

November 10 – Annals of zero tolerance: more nail clippers cases. The Marshall Elementary School in Granite City, Ill. has suspended second-grader Derek Moss for three days after a custodian found him with a nail clipper. Earlier this fall in Cahokia, Ill., 7-year-old second-grader Lamont Agnew drew a 10-day suspension for possession of the same contraband. (Robert Kelly, “Another nail clippers incident reported”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 2 (link now dead)) Earlier this year Pensacola, Fla. administrators recommended the expulsion of 15-year-old sophomore Tawana Dawson for possession of a clipper with a two-inch attached blade; she’d lent it to a classmate to trim her nails. (“School calls nail clipper a weapon”, AP/APB News, June 7). In recent California cases, a 12-year-old Corona boy was expelled over a nail clipper, a decision later reversed; a Mission Viejo 10-year-old was suspended over a three-inch cap-gun toy on her key chain, and a Buena Park 5-year-old was transferred to another school after he brought into school a disposable shaver he’d found at a bus stop. (Oblivion.net)

November 10 – Welcome Progressive Review and Cal-NRA visitors. Haunted-house story is here; gun lawsuits vs. national security story, here.

November 10 – “The Dutch Boy isn’t Joe Camel.” The companies recently sued by Rhode Island “voluntarily stopped marketing lead-based paint for interior use in the 1950s — a generation before the federal government decided to ban interior lead paint in 1978,” writes Judy Pendell of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy (with which our editor is affiliated). You’d think withdrawing your product before you were obliged to would count as socially responsible, but no good deed escapes punishment. Nor, it seems, does any incorporated bystander with deep pockets: “Many of the defendants acquired their companies long after they had stopped making lead paint…If you can sue an industry that essentially shut itself down almost a half century ago, who’s next?” (“Trial lawyers’ next target: the paint industry”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18 — now online at the Manhattan Institute site, which boasts a growing collection of online reports on legal issues (link now dead)).

November 10 – Correction: the difference one letter makes. On Sept. 2 we ran an item about the role of charitable and social-service groups in efforts to take down the gun industry, and included the YMCA on the list of such groups. That was off base: it’s the YWCA that’s a participant in the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, not its male counterpart. The mistake is one the anti-gun coalition itself unleashed on the world when it erroneously listed the YMCA on its list of supporting organizations. The Capital Research Center took the claim at face value in its report on anti-gun philanthropy, whence it made its way to our summary. Patrick Reilly of the Capital Research Center tells us he’s spoken with the coalition, which acknowledges its mistake and says it’s replaced the “M” version with the correct “W”. In the mean time, the poor YMCA has gotten calls from outraged supporters of the Second Amendment. Send those outraged calls to the YWCA instead.

November 9 – Gun jihad menaces national security. Colt Manufacturing is an important current, as well as historic, defense resource to this country: “We are one of the two suppliers of the M16 rifle and the sole supplier of the M4 carbine to the United States military, as well as many of our allies.” Yet the courtroom assault masterminded by American trial lawyers and carried out by their friends at city hall is quickly running the enterprise into the ground: legal defense costs are “astronomical”, financing and insurance are drying up, and managers have scant time to do anything but respond to legal demands.

“In connection with these lawsuits, Colt has been served with extraordinarily expansive and burdensome discovery requests seeking virtually every document in Colt’s possession related to the design, manufacture and marketing of firearms — military and otherwise. In our defense, waves of lawyers have descended on Colt and other legitimate gun manufacturers, scouring every corner and aspect of our business in an effort to respond to these unreasonable requests.”

If the municipal firearms litigation “forces us out of business, it also will leave the military without an experienced base to turn to during a time of crisis. In the opinion of the Department of Defense, it would take two to five years and significant government investment to return any of today’s weapon systems to their current level of operational reliability should we lose this present capability.”

“We are uneasy and troubled by the fact that we and other companies in the future may be driven out of business by a wave of lawsuits, even if the courts eventually find out that the plaintiff’s cases have no merit.” — Lt. Gen. William M. Keys U.S.M.C. (ret.), chief executive officer of the New Colt’s Holding Company, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Nov. 2. (full testimony) (overall hearings page).

November 9 – Hold your e-tongue. Though employees may still fondly imagine their screen banter to be somehow entitled to privacy, “e-mails not only are subject to discovery, but also can kill you in a courtroom,” explain two lawyers with Miami’s Becker & Poliakoff. The problem for companies that get sued is that “people who are normally careful of what they say in writing seem to feel that e-mail doesn’t count, and…say things in e-mails they would never say in person or by telephone.” All of which leads up to the following rather startling advice: “Businesses should have an e-mail policy. Consider such rules as ‘No e-mail may contain derogatory information about individuals or the competition.’” (Mark Grossman and Luis Konski, “Digital Discovery: Decoding Your Adversary”, Legal Times (Wash., D.C.), Oct. 20 — full column).

November 9 – “Banks’ good deeds won’t go unpunished”. Good Steve Chapman column on ill-advised laws adopted in San Francisco and Santa Monica, and under consideration for U.S. military bases, that forbid banks from charging a fee for non-customers’ ATM withdrawals; currently banks put automatic machines “in all sorts of relatively low-traffic, out-of-the-way places”, a trend likely to halt abruptly if the business becomes a legislated money-loser. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 7 — full column).

November 8 – Microsoft ruling: guest editorials. Venture capitalist Jay Freidrichs of Cypress Growth Fund: “My gut is, this is not positive for the industry. The less government involvement, the better.” Peter Ausnit of San Francisco brokerage Volpe Brown Whelan & Co. is alarmed that the ruling could “open up Microsoft to thousands of lawsuits from every belly-up software firm in the world….Are they going to be set upon like the cigarette industry?” George Zachary, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures: “a scary reminder that if you make it to the top, someone will try to pull you down.” Venture capitalist Tim Draper: “Silicon Valley should be furious with the way our government is treating successful companies…Any would-be entrepreneur is getting a message from Washington that says: ‘Become successful but not too successful, or we’ll ruin your life.’” (David Streitfeld, “Glee, Gloom in Silicon Valley”, Washington Post, Nov. 6 (link now dead); Duncan Martell, “Silicon Valley Cheers Microsoft Ruling”, Yahoo/Reuters, Nov. 6 (link now dead)). Plus: Virginia Postrel, “What Really Scares Microsoft”, New York Times, Nov. 8; George Priest, “Judge Jackson’s Findings of Fact: A Feeble Case”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8 (requires online subscription).

November 8 – Ohio tobacco-settlement booty. A private firm with close links to prominent Columbus lobbyists has been angling for the contract to handle Ohio’s anti-tobacco ad campaign, financed from its share of the state’s settlement loot. It just so happens the next CEO of this firm is State Rep. E.J. Thomas, a key player in the divvying up of the tobacco spoils as chair of the House Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Does Mr. Thomas really believe nobody would have questioned his neutrality while voting to award tobacco contracts when he has been holding hands with one of the parties playing to win the jackpot?” editorializes the Toledo Blade. (“The smoking cigarette”, Oct. 24 — link now dead).

November 8 – Who loves trust-and-estates lawyers? Well, auction houses, for one, since these attorneys control so much asset-disposition business. And so a lot of buttering-up goes on: “At one of the largest annual gatherings of trust and estate lawyers in the U.S., held each year in Miami, Christie’s brings down hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewels so that the lawyers, or their spouses, can try them on. ‘I am not that easily swayed,’ says Carol Harrington, an estate lawyer from the Chicago law firm McDermott Will & Emery, who deals regularly with the auction houses. ‘But what woman doesn’t like having $40,000 in jewels around her neck?’” (Daniel Costello, “An Art Collection to Die For”, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 24).

November 8 – “Police storm raucous party to find members of anti-noise squad”. Moral of this report from southwest England: if you’re hoping to keep your job on the town noise-abatement committee, don’t hire three bands and throw a bash late into the night at city hall; after annoyed neighbors called in to report loud whoops and shrieks, police descended on the venue only to find the mayor and local dignitaries in attendance. (AP/CNN, Oct. 26, link now dead).

November 5-7 – “Scared out of business”. Boston Globe reports on decline of a Halloween tradition, the community haunted house, under pressure from building and safety codes (No emergency sprinklers! Combustible material! And children present, no less!) “In the future, the only option will be to drive to a big, slick venue and pay your $23.50 for a corporatized event that has nothing to do with community,” said Douglas Smith, an illustrator who used to help design the haunted house at Hyde Community Center in Newton Highlands, which has lately been discontinued along with two other haunted houses in Newton. “Only they have the resources. Only they can build to these codes.” “I’m very disappointed,” said 10-year-old David Olesky, who had been looking foward to the outing. “They can make rules, but they can’t drain all the fun out of everything. It’s unfair.” Now “the skull’s mouth, the body parts, and dozens of eyeballs remain packed in boxes” at the community center. “Within a few years, I imagine all amateur haunted houses will get shut down,” Smith told the Globe‘s Marcella Bombardieri. “Society is getting so concerned about liability that there’s no way to have fun.” (Oct. 29 — link now dead).

November 5-7 – Public by 2-1 margin disapproves of tobacco suits. New ABC News poll of 1,010 adults finds that by a 60-to-34 percent margin public doesn’t believe tobacco companies should have to pay damages for smoking-related illnesses. But not one of the fifty state attorneys general held back from filing such a suit — an indication these AGs are taking their policy cues from something other than their states’ electorates. As for trial lawyers, they know the luck of the draw will eventually assure them a certain number or juries and judges around the country willing to go along with the 34 percent view. That’s enough to cash in no matter what the majority may think. (ABC News.com, “Cigarette Makers Absolved: Six in 10 Reject Liability for Tobacco Companies”, Nov. 3).

November 5-7 – AOL sued for failure to accommodate blind users. Yes, AOL is big, but the legal theories being advanced under the Americans with Disabilities Act have the potential to redefine all sorts of websites, including publishing and opinion sites, as “public accommodations”. If you’re looking for a way to slow down the growth of the Web, try menacing page designers with liability unless they set aside their to-do list of other site improvements in favor of trooping off to seminars on how to fix nonaccommodative coding choices. (“Blind Group Sues AOL Over Internet Access”, Excite/Reuters, Nov. 5; case settled August 2000)..

November 5-7 – More details on Toshiba. Last Saturday’s L.A. Times, not in our hands before, adds a number of salient details to the story covered in this space November 3. Number of laptops involved: 5.5 million. The company agreed to settle “even though no consumer ever complained of losing data as a result of the glitch”. Company officials “said they had been unable to re-create the problem in the lab, except when trying to save something to a disk while simultaneously doing one or two other intensive tasks, such as playing a game or watching a video.” However, Toshiba was tipped toward settling when it heard that NEC Corp. considered the glitch a genuine one and learned moreover that there’d been an earlier advisory from NEC, thus opening up scenarios in which lawyers could argue that warnings had been callously ignored etc. The coupons will be much more valuable than the usual style of settlement coupons because owners “will be able to sell their coupons or use multiple coupons toward a single purchase.” But the public goodwill fund that will bulk out the rest of the $1 billion settlement if claims fall short may consist of donations of older hardware to charitable groups, a notoriously soft accounting category (Joseph Menn, “Toshiba OKs Settlement of $1 Billion Over Laptops”, Oct. 30, link now dead). Jodi Kantor, Slate “Today’s Papers”, also Oct. 30, reports: “The company’s credit rating was immediately downgraded, and its share price slipped 9%.” (Toshiba site)

November 5-7 – After Casey Martin, the deluge. Latest handicap-accommodation demand from the playing field: family of 9-year-old Ryan Taylor, who’s afflicted with cerebral palsy, asks for his right to play soccer in a metal walker. David Dalton, volunteer president of the Lawton [Okla.] Optimist Soccer Association league, says the walker is hazardous and a violation of the game rules. In addition, the league could get sued if another player smashed into it while trying to contest Taylor’s control of the ball, if any were so unsporting as to try that. However, “in 1996 a federal court in California ruled that a youth baseball league violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by excluding an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy who used crutches” and Houston disability-rights lawyer Wendy Wilkinson is rattling the saber, saying the ruling “definitely applies to this situation”. (Danny M. Boyd, “Disabled boy is barred from playing soccer with a walker”, AP/Fox News, Nov. 3, link now dead).

November 5-7 – “Land of the free…or the lawyers?” Nice editorial in Investors Business Daily on the deepening litigation crisis: “No industry or company is safe.” It even quotes our editor (Oct. 21, link now dead).

November 5-7 – Toffee maker sued for tooth irritation. Spreading across the Atlantic?, cont’d: Former Miss Scotland Eileen Catterson, a runway fashion model for ten years, has sued the makers of Irn-Bru toffee bars saying the sticky confection has left her with discolored teeth and sore gums. She is demanding £5,000 damages in Paisley Sheriff Court, which itself sounds like a fashion establishment. (Gillian Harris, “Model sues sweets firm over teeth”, The Times (London), Oct. 28).

November 4 – Criticizing lawyers proves hazardous. In July Publishers Clearing House, the magazines-by-mail company whose sweepstakes is promoted by Ed McMahon, agreed to settle a class action charging it with deceptive practices. The settlement provided for a maximum of $10 million in outlays by the company, to be divided roughly as follows: $1.5 million to send a notice of settlement to an estimated 48 million households in the class; $5.5 million or less to be refunded to dissatisfied magazine buyers that could muster the required paperwork, the exact sum to depend on how many did so; and $3 million in legal fees for the lawyers who filed the suit, sister-and-brother attorneys Judy Cates and Steven Katz of Swansea, Ill. and a third colleague.

The announcement did not sit well with St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, who wrote August 27 that Cates and Katz “represent the modern version of the James Gang….They recently gained renown by galloping into the little town of Publishers Clearing House. They robbed the bank there, and rode away.” He added that “the way these class-action lawsuits usually work” is that “members of the class get very little. Usually nothing. Our lawyers get a lot. Always….It will be considered a cost of doing business, and like all such costs, it will be passed on to the consumers, who are, of course, the very same people who are allegedly benefiting from the lawsuit.”

And with that, almost before the popular columnist could tell what hit him, he was staring down the barrel of a writ. On August 30 Cates and Katz filed suit against McClellan in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill., seeking $1 million in damages for the libel of having been compared to bank robbers.

Unrepentant, McClellan followed up with a second and equally jocular effort, explaining that the lawyers had misunderstood: although upstanding Illinois might object to bank robbery, “Here in Missouri, we like the James Gang,” as folk heroes from the state’s Great Plains heritage. “So it is with the gallant class-action lawsuit lawyers. Close your eyes and see them the way I see them. They ride into town, file their lawsuits, reach their settlements and then, their saddlebags stuffed with money, they gallop into the night, but as they go, they throw coins to the cheering populace.

“And coins is the operative word, too,” McClellan added, pointing out that on average each of the represented households stood to gain something on the order of 12 cents, compared with $3 million for their lawyers. It is not recorded that Cates and Katz have dropped their suit or been in any other way mollified by this response. Bill McClellan, “Only Ones Who Gain From Class-Action Suits Are The Lawyers”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 27; “Missourians love James Gang and today’s robbers, too”, Sept. 1). Update: Nov. 30 (he criticizes them again, though case is still pending); Feb. 29, 2000 (they agree to drop suit).

November 4 – Bring a long book. It takes New York, on average, seven years to fully adjudicate discrimination cases filed with its Division of Human Rights. One woman in Orleans County spent 14 years in the system before obtaining a $20,000 award, while a complainant against Columbia University was still waiting for a hearing after 11 years. A federal judge has sided with the National Organization for Women in a suit demanding that the agency hire more employees on top of its current 190 to handle the case load; NOW wants that number tripled. (Yancey Roy, “State faulted on rights cases”, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Nov. 2 — link now dead).

November 3 – Toshiba flops over. Last Friday’s announcement by Toshiba Corp. that it had agreed to pay a class-action settlement nominally valued at $2 billion over alleged defects in the floppy-drive operation of its laptop computers appears to represent a genuine breakthrough for plaintiff’s lawyers who’ve for years been gearing up a push to extract cash from high-tech companies over crashes, glitches and other subpar aspects of the computing experience. Many still unanswered questions about the new developments:

* Has the glitch led to any problems at all in real-world use? Conspicuously absent from the coverage of recent days has been any word from victims of the glitch saying that on such and such a date they lost important data because of it. Yet if the plaintiffs’ side had such witnesses available, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t have pushed them forward to public notice by now. Apparently the lawyers, through their expert, have found a way to configure Toshiba laptops so as to replicate data loss under carefully controlled demonstration conditions, but news coverage has not yet probed into the question of how artificial these conditions are or how likely they are to occur to real users who aren’t trying on purpose to get their computers to lose data. The plaintiffs’ theory, which seems rather convenient, is that the data loss is so subtle that people don’t know it’s happening or can’t trace it to the glitch afterward.

* Given the above, who if anyone has suffered damages? Next week Toshiba “will post on its Web site a free and downloadable software patch that eliminates the problem.” And a large percentage of laptop owners never or almost never use their floppy drive, preferring modem transmission of files. Yet all will be entitled to prizes.

* How valuable are those prizes? There’s some talk of refunds for recent purchasers, but presumably most would rather download a software patch than return a computer they like. (Toshibas are popular.) Others will get coupons mostly valued at $100-$225 “for the purchase of Toshiba computer products sold through Toshiba’s U.S. subsidiary”. Usually the face value of a coupon settlement is a highly unreliable guide to what the settlement is actually costing; otherwise a Sunday paper with $30 in grocery coupons in it would sell for $30. Yet Toshiba is taking a $1 billion accounting charge, and pledges to donate unclaimed amounts from the settlement fund to “a newly created charitable organization”. And it’s also agreed to pay a very non-imaginary $147.5 million to a not-so-charitable organization, the lawyers that brought the suit.

* Can the lawyers take their act industry-wide? “On Sunday night, four new suits were filed in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, Texas [where the Toshiba case had been filed only six months ago], against PC makers Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq, NEC Packard-Bell and e-Machines Inc.” Compaq says there are specific diferences between its machines and Toshiba’s which render the case against it meritless. Pattie Adams, a spokeswoman for eMachines, said her company still hadn’t seen the suit but expressed the view that it. “doesn’t really apply to us…It appears to be about laptops, which we do not have, and the technology is from before we were even established.” As if that would save them in our current legal system! Another news report suggests the lawyers are busily trying to rope in governments as plaintiffs, à la guns-tobacco-lead paint: “federal investigators have attended laboratory demonstrations sponsored by plaintiffs’ lawyers intended to show the occurrence of the alleged defect, these people said. State and local agencies can opt to assert damage claims on their own.”

The law firm involved, Reaud, Morgan & Quinn, of Beaumont, Texas, may not be a familiar name to tech-beat reporters, but it’s quite familiar to those who follow high-stakes litigation. After growing rich on asbestos claims it moved into the tobacco-Medicaid suit on behalf of Texas (Forbes, July 7, 1997; Sept. 21, 1998 and sidebar). It also made the Houston Chronicle‘s list of top ten political donors in Texas (five of whom, all consistent Democratic donors, happen to have represented the state in tobacco litigation for $3.3 billion in fees). Beaumont, which also is home to another of the Big Five Texas tobacco firms, is sometimes considered the most plaintiff-dominated town in the United States. (DISCUSS)

Sources: Toshiba press release, Oct. 29; Terho Uimonen, “Toshiba Settles Floppy Disk Lawsuit”, IDG /PC World News, Oct. 29; Andy Pasztor and Peter Landers, “Toshiba to pay $2B settlement on laptops”, Wall Street Journal Interactive/ZDNet, Nov. 1; Michael Fitzgerald and Michael R. Zimmerman, “PC makers hit with ‘copycat’ suits”, PC Week/ZDNet News, Nov. 1; “More PC lawsuits filed”, AP/CNNfn, Nov. 2 (link now dead); “Laptop Illogic”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 3.

November 3 – Flag-burning protest requires environmental permits. You’re so angry you want to burn a flag in public? You’ll have to fill out these two environmental permissions first, please, one for the smoke aspect and one for the fire aspect. We don’t think this is a parody. (Vin Suprynowicz, “Levying a Free-Speech Fee”, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Oct. 28 — full column)

November 3 – Welcome RiskVue and Latex Allergy Links readers. Coverage of EEOC protection of illegal aliens is here, and of possible Rhode Island-led suits against glove makers, here.

November 2 – School shootings: descent of the blame counselors. It may seem incredible to Americans, but after the 1996 massacre at Dunblane, Scotland, in which 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were killed, “not a single lawsuit was filed”. How different in Littleton, Colo., West Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., where busy litigators — call them blame counselors? — seem to outnumber grief counselors, aiming suits in all directions: at school districts, entertainment companies, gunmakers, and most controversially the parents of the killers. Many victim families still decline to sue, taking the older view of litigation as an obstacle to forgiveness and community reconciliation; others throw themselves vigorously into their suits as a cause, believing they’re helping expose deep-seated evils of today’s America or at least the negligence of certain bad parents; and then there’s the middle ground represented by one Columbine High School mother who says she’s forgiven the shooters’ parents, but, frankly, now needs the money. (Lisa Belkin, “Parents Suing Parents”, New York Times Magazine, Oct. 31) (see also July 22, 1999 and April 13, 2000 commentaries).

November 2 – “Responsibility, RIP”. Columnist Mona Charen comments on two auto safety suits, one of them the child-left-in-hot-van case discussed in this space Oct. 20. In the other case, $2 million went to the survivors of a Texas man who’d left a truck running on a hill and walked behind it. “You don’t need an owner’s manual to tell you that it’s dangerous to walk behind a running, driverless vehicle on a steep hill. This used to be known as common sense. But so long as juries return such verdicts, the concept of individual responsibility gets hammered ever lower…the trial lawyers’ wallets grow corpulent, and the populace is increasingly infantilized.” (Jewish World Review, Oct. 25 — full column)

November 2 – How the tobacco settlement works. “‘There’ll be adjustments each year based on inflation,’ said Brett DeLange, head of the Idaho attorney general’s consumer protection unit. Plus, ‘If cigarette volume goes down, our payments will go down. If volume goes up, our payments will go up even more.’” Why, it’s like Christmas come early! Of course DeLange denies that this arrangement will in any way dampen the state’s enthusiasm for reducing tobacco use. (Betsy Z. Russell, “Tobacco money gets closer to Idaho”, Spokane Spokesman-Review, Oct. 24 — full story) (see also July 29 commentary)

November 2 – Lockyer vs. keys. “October 12, 1999 (Sacramento) — Attorney General Bill Lockyer today sued 13 key manufacturers and distributors for allegedly failing to warn that their products expose consumers to the toxic chemical lead in violation of Proposition 65.” — thus a press release from the office of the California AG. From time immemorial, it seems, house keys have been made of brass, and brass contains lead. Whatever you do, don’t tell him about the knocker on your front door, or those robe hooks in the bathroom. (press release link now dead)

November 2 – Perkiness a prerequisite? Lawsuit charges local outlet of Just for Feet shoe chain with bias against black workers. Among evidence alleged: store “policy dictating employees should look like Doris Day or ‘the boy next door.’ Company representatives deny the existence of such a policy.” (“Shoe store accused of discrimination”, AP, Las Vegas Sun, Oct. 26 — full story)

November 2 – 80,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. With help from our Canadian visitors, we hit a new daily traffic record last Thursday. New weekly and monthly records, too. Thanks for your support!

November 1 – New topical page on Overlawyered.com : family law resources. Divorce, custody, visitation, child support, adoptions gone wrong, and other occasions for overlawyering of the worst kind.

November 1 – Not-so-Kool omen for NAACP suit. Apparently unconcerned about retaining the good will of Second Amendment advocates, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is suing gunmakers for having catered to strong demand for their product in inner cities (see Aug. 19 commentary). Its potential case, however, is widely regarded as weak — so desperately weak that back on July 19 the National Law Journal reported the civil-rights group as angling to get the suit heard by Brooklyn’s very liberal senior-status federal judge Jack Weinstein because the underlying theories “might not succeed in any other courtroom in America”.

Now there’s another omen that the much-publicized lawsuit is unlikely to prevail: in Philadelphia, federal judge John Padova has dismissed a proposed class action which charged cigarette makers with selling in unusually high volume to black customers and targeting them with menthol brands and billboard ads. To bring a civil rights claim, the judge wrote, “[p]laintiffs would have to contend that the tobacco products defendants offer for sale to African Americans were defective in a way that the products they offer for sale to whites were not.” If a racial angle can’t be grafted onto the legal jihad against cigarette makers, is the same tactic likely to be any more successful when directed at gun makers?

Sources: Sabrina Rubin, “Holy Smokes!”, Philadelphia Magazine, February 1999; Shannon P. Duffy, “Court Urged to Dismiss Menthol Cigarette Class Action”, The Legal Intelligencer, April 8; Joseph A. Slobodzian, “A novel civil-rights lawsuit vs. tobacco industry is dismissed”, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 24, link now dead; Shannon P. Duffy, “Judge Dismisses Smoking Suit”, The Legal Intelligencer, Sept. 24.

November 1 – Mounties vs. your dish. About a million Canadians are said to defy their country’s ban on the use of satellite dishes to receive international programming, though the Mounties’ website warns that violators “can face fines of up to $5,000 and/or up to 12 months in prison”. The ban applies not only to “pirate” watching (where viewers buy stolen code that lets them unscramble signals without compensating the satellite provider) but even to straightforward paid subscriptions to foreign satellite services. The only lawful option is to go through one of a duopoly of Ottawa-approved suppliers (Bell Express Vu and Star Choice). Good news on another front, though: Internet radio is letting listeners bypass the absurd and oppressive laws requiring Canadian content in that medium. Bring Internet TV soon, please! (Ian Harvey, “RCMP threatens a clean-up of illegal dishes”, Toronto Sun, Oct. 13 — full column)

November 1 – “Shoot the middle-aged”. That’s the title of a Detroit News editorial responding to the Michigan House’s unanimous approval of a bill allowing for doubling of criminal penalties when offenses are committed against the young or elderly. (Oct. 23 — full editorial).

November 1 – World according to Ron Motley. Even before tobacco fees, the Charleston-based plaintiff’s lawyer was “worth tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars. But he’s about to get much richer. A billion or two or three richer….Sketching plans that would alarm many corporate executives, the 53-year-old lawyer will reinvest most of his newfound money to finance lawsuits against the makers of lead paint, operators of nursing homes, health maintenance organizations and prescription drug makers.” He calls the businesses he sues “crooks”. “Mr. Motley’s windfall [from tobacco] is likely to exceed $3 billion…’If I don’t bring the entire lead paint industry to its knees within three years, I will give them my [120-foot] boat,’ he says”.

In its flattering profile of the 53-year-old South Carolinian, yesterday’s Dallas Morning News quotes a pair of law profs who hint that the public should really be glad Motley is now personally reaping billions for representing government clients, because next time he sues some huge business it’ll be more of an even match. By that logic, we’d be better off if we let every lawyer who argues a case against, say, Microsoft, amass as much wealth as Bill Gates. Maybe the trial lawyers will figure out a way to make that happen too before long (Mark Curriden, “Tobacco fees give plaintiffs’ lawyers new muscle”, Oct. 31 — full story)

{ 1 comment }