- 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]
- 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]
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.
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.
“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.
“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 Slate “Today’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).
January 31 — Scorched-earth divorce tactics? Pay up. Lawyers in Massachusetts are assessing the impact of two recent cases in which, departing from usual practice, courts have penalized family-law litigants for engaging in carpet-bombing tactics by ordering them to pay attorneys’ fees to their victimized opponents. In one case, Basel v. Basel, a husband was ordered to pay $100,000 of his wife’s legal bill after he unsuccessfully accused her of being a drunk, a drug addict, and a child abuser; the judge ruled that he’d engaged in a “calculated campaign of outrageous behavior to destroy (his) wife’s credibility” and called his portrayal of his wife “nefarious” and “fraudulent”. “By the time it was over,” the Boston Globe reports, “the lengthy litigation had cost more than $600,000 in legal fees, half of which was paid by [the husband’s] parents.”
Peter Zupcofska, vice chairman of the Boston Bar Association’s family law section, said the ruling by Worcester probate judge Joseph Lian Jr. could signal a new departure in the state of matrimonial practice: “if the litigation that’s waged is clearly done to harass, harangue, and intimidate the other party, and to create a kind of economic slavery by utilizing vast amounts of marital funds in a really destructive way,” he said, “then the judge is going to do something to redress that imbalance.” In another recent Bay State case, Krock v. Krock, a probate judge awarded $81,000 in fees against a wife found to have engaged in wrongful litigation. “You can no longer assume that having money gives you the right to wage these frivolous, scorched-earth campaigns without risking paying the price for the other side,” said Boston family law practitioner Elaine Epstein. “And if you do, you do so at your own peril.” (Sacha Pfeiffer, “A warning to battling spouses”, Boston Globe, Jan. 23).
January 31 — Coils of forfeiture law. For Joe Bonilla, the good news is his acquittal three months ago on charges of drunken driving. The bad news is that New York City has no plans to give back the $46,000 Ford Expedition he was driving when cops pulled him over. Bonilla, a 34-year-old construction worker, is paying $689 a month on the vehicle, which he’d been driving for only two days when stopped last May on his way home, he says, from a late screening of the movie “Shakespeare in Love”. A Bronx judge declared him not guilty on the charge, but that doesn’t mean he can have his car back, the city says. (Tara George, “He’s Not Guilty of DWI, But Cops Still Have Car”, New York Daily News, Jan. 25) (more on forfeiture: Oct. 7, F.E.A.R., Reason, Fumento).
January 31 — Do as we say…. Serious fire code violations are threatening to snarl plans to open a $1-million public facility in Charleston, W.V. It’s kinda embarrassing since the facility is itself a fire station. “Not only is a firewall improperly installed inside the $1 million station house, but there are no smoke alarms in the sleeping quarters.” (Todd C. Frankel, “Fire station also lacking smoke alarms”, Charleston Daily Mail, Jan. 19).
January 31 — Showdown in Michigan. Battle royal shaping up this November in the Wolverine State, whose Supreme Court, since a series of appointments by Republican Gov. John Engler, has been assuming a national leadership role in rolling back litigation excesses. Trial lawyers, unionists and others are furiously plotting revenge when the judges stand for their retention elections. A Detroit News editorial provides a quick rundown on what promise to be some of this year’s most closely watched judicial races (Jeffrey Hadden, “State Supreme Court in partisan Catch-22”, Detroit News, Jan. 18).
January 29-30 — Update: OSHA in full retreat on home office issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced on Wednesday that it will not, after all, seek to regulate hazardous conditions in workers’ home offices, such as rickety stairs, ergonomically inappropriate chairs, or inadequate lighting. Accepting the agency’s spin, the New York Times‘s Steven Greenhouse reports the new stance as a “clarification” meant to dispel “confusion”. Translation: the agency has baldly reversed its earlier policy. When OSHA’s November advisory letter came to public notice earlier this month, the Washington Post summarized its contents this way: “Companies that allow employees to work at home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site.” (see Jan. 5, Jan. 6, Jan. 8-9 commentaries). Under the new policy, the word “not” will simply be inserted before the word “responsible” in that sentence. (At least as regards home offices: manufacturing activities conducted at home will still come under its jurisdiction, the agency says.)
Why did the earlier OSHA directive cause such an uproar? According to the Times‘ Greenhouse, it “alarmed thousands of corporate executives and angered many lawmakers, particularly Republicans” who began “using it” as a political issue — very naughty of them to do such a thing, we may be sure. But as most other news outlets reported, word of the policy had scared not just bosses but innumerable telecommuters themselves, who not unreasonably expected that the new policy would result in (at a minimum) more red tape for them and quite possibly a chill on their employers’ willingness to permit telecommuting at all. And while opposition from Republicans might come as scant surprise, the newsier angle was the lack of support from the measure from many elected Democrats; even a spokeswoman for Rep. Richard Gephardt said it “seemed excessive”.
OSHA director Charles N. Jeffress announced that the “bottom line” remained what it had “always been”: “OSHA will respect the privacy of the home and expects that employers will as well.” Translation: the agency was stung so badly by the public reaction to its initiative that it’s going to pretend it never proposed it in the first place (Steven Greenhouse, “Home Office Isn’t Liability For Firms, U.S. Decides”, New York Times, Jan. 28; Frank Swoboda, “OSHA Exempts White-Collar Telecommuters”, Washington Post, Jan. 27; “OSHA Exempts Home Offices”, Reuters/FindLaw, Jan. 27).
January 29-30 — Update: judge angered by obstructive SEPTA defense. After last month’s $50 million jury award against the Philadelphia transit authority over the maiming of 4-year-old Shareif Hall on an escalator, Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson expressed anger over SEPTA’s mishandling of physical evidence and failure to provide relevant documents requested by the plaintiffs. The agency settled the case for $7.4 million and pledged to improve both its escalators and its litigation behavior in the future. (Claudia Ginanni, “Judge Fines SEPTA $1 Million; Authority Held in Contempt for Withholding Evidence”, The Legal Intelligencer, Dec. 23; “SEPTA Settles Escalator Suit for $7.4 Million”, Jan. 6; see Dec. 17-19 commentary).
January 28 — Law prof wants to regulate newspaper editorials. Libertarians have long warned that laws curbing private buying of campaign ads constitute a dangerous incursion on free speech and are likely to pave the way for further inroads. In last June’s Texas Law Review, Associate Professor Richard L. Hasen of Loyola University Law School (Los Angeles) proceeds to prove them correct by endorsing government regulation of newspaper editorials. He writes: “If we are truly committed to equalizing the influence of money of elections, how do we treat the press? Principles of political equality could dictate that a Bill Gates should not be permitted to spend unlimited sums in support of a candidate. But different rules [now] apply to Rupert Murdoch just because he has channeled his money through media outlets that he owns… The principle of political equality means that the press too should be regulated when it editorializes for or against candidates.”
Hasen happily looks forward to the day when the Supreme Court can be persuaded to overturn Buckley v. Valeo and the way will be clear for such regulation of the expression of opinion in newspapers: “op-ed pieces or commentaries expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office could no longer be directly paid for by the media corporation’s funds. Instead, they would have to be paid for either by an individual (such as the CEO of the media corporation) or by a PAC set up by the media corporation for this purpose. The media corporation should be required to charge the CEO or the PAC the same rates that other advertising customers pay for space on the op-ed page.” (Quoted by Stuart Taylor, Jr., “The Media Should Beware of What It Embraces”, National Journal, Jan. 1, no longer online; see also Richard Hasen, “Double Standard,” Brill’s Content, Feb. 1999).
January 28 — From our mail sack: unclear on the concept. To judge from the summaries of our search-engine traffic, a nontrivial number of visitors land on this website each day because they’re looking to get in on class-action lawsuits. We fear that we do not always succeed in giving full satisfaction to these visitors. For example, last week the following note arrived in our inbox, signed K.E.: “Please send me the website or address re the Toshiba settlement. I need to file. Why was this not on your site where it could readily be found?”
January 28 — Strippers in court. A group of San Francisco exotic dancers sued their employers last month, saying they’d been improperly categorized as independent contractors with the result that they were denied overtime pay and were unfairly forced to purchase their own “supplies”, in the form of expensive drinks. (National Law Journal, “The Week in Review: The Flux”, Dec. 27-Jan. 3). In Canada, a judge has ruled against Loredana Silion, 24, in her petition for a work permit to perform as an exotic dancer. While Ms. Silion had danced in a nightclub in her native Rumania, the job there involved only topless dancing, which the judge ruled was not a close enough match in skills for the task of dancing at Toronto’s Sunset Strip club, where nothing at all is worn. (Marina Jimenez, “Stripper told she’s not naked enough to work in Canada”, National Post, Jan. 14). And exotic dancer Doddie L. Smith has now sued an Arizona plastic surgeon, saying the doctor’s augmentation surgery left her breasts “too high” with the result that she is “unable to be a ‘featured dancer’ at exotic dance clubs, model as a centerfold in adult magazines, or promote her modeling career”. Estimated wage loss: $100,000. (Gretchen Schuldt, “Exotic dancer claims doctor botched breast surgery”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 12) (Update: more on strippers in court: May 23, July 26-27).
January 26-27 — Florida ADA complaint binge. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act, “a half-dozen non-profit corporations and associated individuals [ ] have filed more than 600 federal suits in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach” charging building owners and service providers with failing to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped, according to Miami’s legal publication, the Daily Business Review. Targets of the complaints, large and small, range from Kmart and Carnival Cruises down to local funeral homes and the little Coconut Court Motel in Fort Lauderdale, as well as nonprofits and public entities such as the local Baptist hospital and the city of Pompano Beach. A six-lawyer Miami Beach law firm, Fuller, Mallah & Associates, has spearheaded the assault, helping form three nonprofits that account for most of the filings. Indeed, no less than 323 of the cases name as plaintiff 72-year-old wheelchair user Ernst Rosenkrantz. “When pressed to explain how he hooked up with the law firm, Rosenkrantz said law firm partner John D. Mallah is his nephew.” However, “Mallah didn’t mention that relationship when asked about Rosenkrantz in an earlier interview,” notes reporter Dan Christiansen.
Most cases settle when the charged business agrees to make some modification to its facilities and pay the complainant’s legal fees — $275 an hour plus expenses in Mallah’s case. The ADA allows complainants to file suit without warning the target, and it displays considerable solicitude for the welfare of lawyers filing cases: “the attorney’s fees provisions are such that even if they get [nothing more than] the telephone volume controls changed, they automatically win the case,” says one defense lawyer. First Union, the large bank, says it refuses on principle to settle cases filed by the group: “The fees that are being charged seem to be way out of line to the amount of work that they do,” says one of its lawyers, besides which the bank had been moving forward on its own with an ADA compliance program. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate mass ADA filings in Broward County. (Dan Christiansen, “Besieged by Suits”, Miami Daily Business Review, Dec. 21). (Feb. 15 update: Congressmen introduce legislation) (DURABLE LINK)
January 26-27 — Seattle police: sued if they do… The constabulary of the northwest metropolis now faces a slew of lawsuits over its handling of the World Trade Organization protests in late November and early December. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the claims divide into two broad groups: those accusing the city of cracking down on the protesters too hard, and those accusing it of not cracking down hard enough. (Mike Barber, “Police sued for doing too little, too much”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 25).
January 26-27 — Feelings of nausea? Get in line. In 1997 a barge accident and chemical spill on the Mississippi sent a foul-smelling haze over much of Baton Rouge, La. A steering committee of attorneys formed to sue for compensation for local residents over symptoms such as “nausea, severe headaches and fatigue” experienced after smelling the odors. And did the claims ever start to roll in: by November of last year 13,000 forms had already been submitted, according to one lawyer, and the pace became even more frenetic as the Jan. 14 final deadline approached for filing claims. Long lines stretched around the block outside the old federal building; one woman said she waited six hours to get in the door, while more than 100 others were turned away at the end of the day, to come back the next day if at all; and many grumblings were heard about missing work. (Adrian Angelette, “Long line awaits claimants in chemical leak suit”, Baton Rouge Advocate, Jan. 14).(DURABLE LINK)
January 26-27 — From our mail sack: the lawyer’s oyster. Regarding our Jan. 15-16 “Poetry Corner” reprint of “The Benefit of Going to Law”, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1733, New York attorney John Brewer writes: “Just a few days after noting the verse by Ben Franklin you had posted on your site, I came across an earlier and more concise exposition of the same image, viz.:
“Two find an Oyster, which they will not part,
Both will have all or none, the Lawyer’s art
Must end the strife; he fits their humour well,
Eats up the fish, and gives them each a shell.
“According to the recently published Oxford Companion to the Year (“An exploration of calendar customs and time-reckoning”), this appeared in the 1665 edition of Poor Robin’s Almanack (note possible Franklin influence of the name), as one of four such bits of doggerel marking the traditional four law terms. The oyster stanza was for Michaelmas Term.
“You might also find salient the verse for Hilary Term:
Anoint thy Lawyer, grease him in the fist,
And he will plead for thee e’en what thou list;
He’ll make thy cause strong though the same were weak,
But if thy purse be dumb, his tongue can’t speak.
“The verses for Easter and Trinity Terms are similarly on the theme of the costliness of going to law and its financial benefit to none but the bar, but have somewhat less punch and clarity of expression.”
January 25 — Feds’ tobacco hypocrisy, cont’d: Indian “smoke shops”. It seems when the Clinton Administration isn’t filing lawsuits to brand tobacco-marketing as “racketeering” (see Sept. 23 commentary), it’s quietly staking taxpayer money to help its constituents get into the business. A Senate Small Business Committee probe has found that since 1997 the Department of Housing and Urban Development has laid out $4.2 million to enable four Indian tribes to build “smoke shops” that sell discounted cigarettes free from state taxes. Why, one wonders, should subsidies be needed to facilitate an intrinsically high-profit activity that might be likened to lawful smuggling? And of course the source of this largesse is the very same HUD whose Secretary Andrew Cuomo has so loudly endorsed lawsuits against gun sellers whose wares are said to inflict spillover damage on other localities’ public health. A crowning hypocrisy is that some of the tribes that derive income from smoke shops are themselves now suing tobacco companies (see July 14 commentary).
The Senate committee uncovered six instances in which tribes obtained HUD subsidies to open smoke shops, five in Oklahoma and one in Nevada, but it is likely that the true number is larger. For example, this site’s editor, in his March Reason column (not yet in subscribers’ mailboxes, but previewing at the Reason site), identified another similar-sounding case: in 1997 HUD furnished the Reno Sparks Indian Colony with $450,000 “to build a smoke shop along Interstate 80 near the California border,” according to the Bend, Oregon, Bulletin. (Wendy Koch, “Tribes get funds to build ‘smoke shops'”, USA Today, Jan. 24; Walter Olson, “The Year in Double Takes”, Reason, March). (DURABLE LINK)
January 25 — Line forms on the right for chance to suffer this tort. A woman has won $5,135 in damages from owners for having been locked overnight in an Irish pub. “Marian Gahan fell asleep on the toilet in Searsons Pub in central Dublin, and did not wake until 2 a.m., by which time the pub was closed”. She argued that the pub managers should have checked the toilets before locking up. The trial had to be adjourned early on when Ms. Gahan’s barrister, Eileen McAuley, burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter while recounting her own client’s case. (“Woman locked in pub wins $5,135 damages”, Reuters/Excite, Jan. 18; “Tears and laughter at trauma in toilet”, Irish Times, Oct. 21).
January 25 — Recommended reading. On the unnerving ease with which charges of abuse and violence can be pulled from a hat to provide legal assistance in a divorce (Dan Lynch, “We’ll see how blind justice is”, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 19); on the war underway in legal academia over many scholars’ acceptance of the idea that the Second Amendment does indeed protect individual gun rights (Chris Mooney, “Showdown”, Lingua Franca, February); on the chill to workplace banter now that harassment law has gotten well established in Britain (Roland White, “Careless talk makes the office world go round”, The Times (London), Jan. 23).
January 25 — Latest lose-on-substance, win-on-retaliation employment claim. It’s pretty common, actually: the suit-prone worker flatly loses on his original claim of discrimination, but his claim for “retaliation” comes through to save the day because after the job relationship had turned adversarial the employer was shown to have treated him less favorably than before. Bad, bad employer! This time a Delaware jury decided that Eunice Lafate had not in fact been passed over for a promotion at Chase Manhattan because of her race, but awarded her $600,000 anyway on her retaliation charges; after filing the complaint, she said, she’d been cut out of management meetings and given less favorable evaluations. (Jim DeSouza, “Jury Wants Chase Manhattan to Pay $600,000 for Retaliating Against Employee”, Delaware Law Weekly, Dec. 9)(see also Sept. 29 commentary).
January 24 — Latest shallow-end pool-dive case. In Massachusetts, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear the appeal of Joseph O’Sullivan, who was visiting his girlfriend’s grandparents in Methuen and decided to dive into the shallow end of their pool. An experienced swimmer and 21 years old at the time, O’Sullivan was not paralyzed but did crack two vertebrae and proceeded to sue the grandparents for not stopping him or providing warnings. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson takes a dim view of O’Sullivan’s case, and the lower court did not find it persuasive either (“A shallow case for the SJC”, Jan. 12).
January 24 — “Mormon actress sues over profanity”. Christina Axson-Flynn, 20, is suing the University of Utah, charging that the theater department insisted that she use foul language in character portrayals even though they knew it violated her religious principles to do so. The department disputes the contentions in her suit, which asks for unspecified damages. (Yahoo/AP, Jan. 14; Jim Rayburn, “U. theater department sued over language”, Deseret News (Salt Lake City), Jan. 14). Update Feb. 16, 2004: appeals court lets suit proceed.
January 24 — “Ambulance chaser” label ruled defamatory. The Second Circuit federal court of appeals has ruled that a New York attorney can sue over a printed description of him as an “ambulance chaser” given to taking only “slam dunk cases”. The American Association of University Women and its related AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund had put out a directory in 1997 which listed 275 attorneys practicing in its fields of interest. Appended to the contact information for attorney Leonard Flamm was the following description: “Mr. Flamm handles sex discrimination cases in the area of pay equity, harassment and promotion. Note: At least one plaintiff has described Flamm as an ‘ambulance chaser’ with an interest only in ‘slam dunk cases.'” U.S. District Judge Denny Chin had dismissed Mr. Flamm’s resulting lawsuit against AAUW, ruling that the comments, although “beyond the pale” and “seriously derogatory”, were protected as expressions of opinion under the First Amendment. On appeal, however, a panel led by Judge Thomas Meskill reinstated the action, noting that the objectionable passage might be read as implying specific factual assertions relating to unethical solicitation of business, that it appeared in italics, and that the other entries in the directory were generally of a factual rather than opinion-based nature. (Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal, Jan. 6).
January 24 — No clash between clauses. Cincinnati attorney Richard Ganulin has filed a notice of appeal after a federal court dismissed his lawsuit claiming that the government’s observing of Christmas as a public holiday violates the Bill of Rights’ Establishment Clause. Last month U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott rejected Ganulin’s action, ruling that Congress was “merely acknowledging the secular cultural aspects of Christmas by declaring Christmas to be a legal public holiday. … A government practice need not be exclusively secular to survive”. She also prefaced her opinion with a bit of free verse: “The court will uphold /Seemingly contradictory causes /Decreeing “The Establishment” and “Santa” /Both worthwhile Claus(es).” (Ben L. Kaufman, “Challenge to Christmas holiday appealed”, Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 10).
January 21-23 — “Tracking the trial lawyers”: a contributions database. American Tort Reform Foundation today unveils a handy interactive database for keeping track of which lawyers have been donating to which politicians and parties. You can search by lawyer, by law firm, by recipient politician or institution, and more. Hours of alarming fun (“Follow the Money“).
January 21-23 — From our mail sack. Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Vera Institute of Justice writes, regarding our Jan. 18 report on the strange-warning-labels contest:
“I can tell you were never a teenage girl that you think the advice ‘never
iron clothes while they’re being worn’ is wacky. We used to do this in high school all the time. We’d be in a big hurry — having wasted hours trying on & discarding one another’s clothes — and would finally find the right thing to wear only to notice that the sleeve, say, was wrinkled. Why take it off? Just retract your arm & iron. The occasional small burn never deterred us that I can recall.
“I do like your newsletter.”
January 21-23 — Y2K roundup: poor things! Lack of century-end catastrophes is a “calamity” of its own for lawyers who’d been set to file suits galore demanding damages for outages and data loss. “Lawyers were licking their chops,” Madelyn Flanagan of the Independent Insurance Agents of America told the Washington Post‘s David Segal. “I think the whole world is relieved.” (David Segal, “A Y2K Glitch For Lawyers: Few Lawsuits”, Washington Post, Jan. 10.) Ross & Co., a British solicitors’ firm that had been planning a big Y2K practice, still hopes for the best: “It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sues“, claims its website. (“Lawyers still gearing up for millennium bug attack”, FindLaw/Reuters, Jan. 20). Don’t count us out yet either, says Philadelphia attorney Ronald Weikers (softwarelitigation.com), who’s hoping the state of Delaware will sue manufacturers over a glitch that knocked out 800 slot machines for three days, thus preventing the state from slurping up locals’ spare coins over that period. Then there are the remediation-cost suits: thus the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which made the transition “without a murmur”, is considering suing tech firms over the $80 million it says it spent to upgrade systems. (“Puerto Rico Government Considers Suing Over $80 Million In Y2K Work”, DowJones.com, Jan. 4) The reliable Ralph Nader has chimed in with his reasons for blaming everything on the deep pockets (“Y2Pay”, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dec. 29.) And here come the backlash suits: the Independent of London reports that one company has sued outside consultants for exaggerating the risk from the calendar rollover (Robert Verkaik, “Y2K consultants sued by firm for exaggerating risk”, The Independent, Jan. 11). (DURABLE LINK)
January 21-23 — Cartoon that made us laugh. By Ruben Bolling, for Salon: “….We can’t take those off the market! Dangerous products are a gold mine for the government!” (Jan. 20 — full cartoon)
January 21-23 — Civil disabilities of freethinkers. Imagine letting a murderer go free because you’d excluded the crime’s only witness from testifying on the grounds that as a religious unbeliever he could not take a proper oath. Absurd? Yet such notions survive today in the constitution of the state of Arkansas: “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court.” Along with Arkansas, the constitutions of Maryland, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas retain historic provisions that contemplate or mandate the exclusion of unbelievers — and in some cases, minority religionists who reject the idea of a retributive afterlife — from public office, admission as witnesses in court, or both. Thus Article IX, Sec. 2, of the Tennessee constitution: “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Widely considered unenforceable today, such provisions might at some point resume practical importance given today’s highly visible movement to re-infuse religious sentiment into government; in the meantime, they symbolically relegate to second-class citizenship those who hold one set of opinions. “The Arkansas anti-atheist provision survived a federal court challenge as recently as 1982”. (Tom Flynn, “Outlawing Unbelief”, Free Inquiry, Winter 1999). (DURABLE LINK)
January 20 — The joy of tobacco fees. In his January Reason column, this website’s editor pulls together what we now know about the $246 billion state-Medicaid tobacco settlements, including: the role of the settlement in imposing a cartel structure on the industry and chilling entry by new competitors; the happy situation of some lawyers who are in line to collect hundreds of millions of dollars when they simply “piggybacked” on others’ legal work, with little independent contribution of their own; and the often more-than-casual ties between tobacco lawyers and the state attorneys general who hired them, to say nothing of such influentials as President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (both of whose brothers-in-law were in on the tobacco plaintiffs’ side). Maybe it’s time to retire Credit Mobilier and Teapot Dome as synonyms for low points in American business-government interaction. (Walter Olson, “Puff, the Magic Settlement”, Reason, January).
January 20 — “The case for age discrimination”. You do it, Supreme Court justices do it, we all do it: generalize about people based on their ages. It’s clear that most age-based discrimination isn’t “invidious” in the original sense of race bias, and it’s only rational for an employer to avoid investing in costly retraining for a worker who’s likely to retire soon. So how’d we wind up with a law on the books purporting to ban this universal practice, anyway? (Dan Seligman, “The case for age discrimination”, Forbes, Dec. 13).
January 20 — Watchdogs could use watching. Beginning in 1993 Brian D. Paonessa employed an active solicitation campaign in conjunction with various Florida law firms to sign up hundreds of securities investors to pursue arbitration claims against Prudential Securities Inc. Not prominently featured in Paonessa’s marketing, apparently, was the fact that federal securities regulators were on his own tail on charges that he’d pocketed $149,500 in “ill-gotten gains” at the expense of investor clients. Since then, as the busy rainmaker has become embroiled in legal disputes over alleged fee-splitting arrangements with the law firms, some colorful charges have made it onto the public record. (Stephen Van Drake, “Florida Fee-Sharing Suit May Open Door to Direct-Solicitation Scrutiny”, Miami Daily Business Review, Oct. 11).
January 20 — Gotham’s plea-bargain mills. “Last year each judge sitting in the New York City Criminal Court, on average, handled nearly 5,000 cases. With calendars that huge, the system is reduced to a plea bargain mill, with no true trial capability offering balance to the process. It’s no secret. Everyone — including the repeat offender — knows this.” — New York chief judge Judith Kaye, State of the Judiciary Address, Jan. 10 (New York Law Journal site).
January 19 — “Private job bias lawsuits tripled in 1990s”. “Aided by new federal laws, private lawsuits alleging discrimination in the workplace more than tripled during in the 1990s, the Justice Department said.” According to the Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “job bias lawsuits filed in U.S. District Courts soared from 6,936 in 1990 to 21,540 in 1998….The percentage of winning plaintiffs awarded $10 million or more rose from 1 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1998.” (AP/FindLaw, Jan. 17; Bureau of Justice Statistics abstract and link to full report, “Civil Rights Complaints in U.S. District Courts, 1990-98”).
January 19 — Santa came late. Faced with outages and high volume, the e-tailing operation of Toys-R-Us failed to deliver many toys by Christmas as promised. Now Seattle attorney Steve Berman has filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status to represent all customers who did not receive their shipments by Dec. 25. According to George magazine’s profile of tobacco lawyers last year (see Aug. 21-22), Berman’s firm is in line to receive roughly $2 billion from representing states in the tobacco settlement — enough to stake a very large number of bets like this one, should he see fit. The named plaintiff is Kimberly Alguard of Lynnwood, Washington. (“ToysRUs.com Sued: Santa Failed”, Reuters/WiredNews, Jan. 12).
January 19 — The costs of disclosure. In 1992 Tacoma, Wash. attorney Doug Schafer fielded what seemed a routine request from businessman-client Bill Hamilton to draw up incorporation papers for a new venture. But the details Hamilton provided convinced Schafer that his client was involved with Tacoma lawyer Grant Anderson in dishonest business dealings arising from Anderson’s milking of an estate. To make things worse — and raising the stakes considerably — Anderson shortly thereafter was elevated to a Superior Court judgeship.
What should a lawyer do in those circumstances? Schafer later decided to go public and seek an investigation of the judge and the transaction, thus beginning a struggle whose eventual results included an order by the Washington Supreme Court throwing Judge Anderson off the bench (for “egregious” misconduct) and a $500,000 recovery by a hospital in a lawsuit against the judge and others over their conduct. But in the state of Washington — as in a majority of other states — a lawyer has no right to breach his obligation of confidentiality to clients even when the result is to bolster public integrity or provide a remedy to defrauded parties. And so next month Doug Schafer will appear before a panel of the Washington State Bar Association to defend himself against disciplinary charges. Moreover, the reputation he’s picked up as a single-minded scourge of the corruption he perceives in the system has helped devastate his legal career, while Judge Anderson, though forced off the bench, has as yet faced no other consequences from bar enforcers, though an investigation is ongoing. (Bob Van Voris, “The High Cost of Disclosure”, National Law Journal, Jan. 4; Mary Lou Cooper, “The Cadillac Judge”, Washington Law & Politics, Sept. 1998; Tacoma News-Tribune coverage, 1998, 1999; Schafer’s website). Update Jul. 26, 2003: Washington Supreme Court suspends Schafer for six months.
January 19 — 175,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. Thanks for your support!
January 18 — “Never iron clothes while they’re being worn”. That’s the winning entry in Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s third annual Wacky Warning Label Contest. Bonnie Hay of Plano, Texas, found the warning on an iron. Second place was awarded to a Traverse City, Mich. man’s discovery of “Not for highway use” on his 13-inch wheelbarrow tire, and third place went to “This product is not to be used in bathrooms” on a bathroom heater. M-LAW president Robert B. Dorigo Jones said the contest had a serious point, to illustrate manufacturers’ growing fear of lawsuits and the retreat of principles of individual responsibility. Finalists in earlier years’ contests have included sleeping pills labeled “May cause drowsiness”; a cardboard sunshield to keep sun off a car’s dashboard that warned “Do not drive with sunshield in place”; and a cartridge for a laser printer that warned the consumer not to eat the toner. (CNN/AP, Jan. 13; M-LAW; contest results).
January 18 — Courts mull qui tam constitutionality. The Civil War-era False Claims Act provides stringent civil penalties for anyone who submits inflated or false bills to government procurement officials, and the “relator” provisions of that act allow any private citizen to bring suit to enforce the law and obtain damages for the United States. The relator — who may be an employee of the defendant enterprise, or a complete stranger — can then by law collect a share of between 15 and 30 percent in any recovery obtained by the government, with no need to prove an injury to himself. Qui tam actions have soared in number in recent years, actively solicited by lawyers seeking rich contingency payouts (the law was liberalized in 1986 to provide treble damages). For their part, businesses, hospitals and universities complain that the quality of accusations filed against them is often low (see Sept. 9 commentary) and that the law can actually encourage bad behavior by bounty-hunting employees who (for example) may fail to report billing irregularities promptly to higher management finding it more lucrative to let them mount and then file a legal complaint. In Pennsylvania, eyebrows were raised when one entrepreneur pitched his services to a hospital as a consultant for the prevention of false claims, and then, having been turned down for that job, proceeded to sue that hospital and 99 others as relator based on a statistical analysis of their billing patterns.
Recently the qui tam provisions have come under heightened scrutiny. On November 15, writing for a panel of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Jerry Smith struck down as unconstitutional the portions of the act that authorize actions by uninjured parties in the absence of a go-ahead from Washington, ruling that such suits encroach on the Constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers by impairing the executive branch’s right to control litigation that goes on in the name of government interests. The case will be reheard by the full Circuit. Moreover, the decision may have had immediate repercussions at the U.S. Supreme Court, which had already agreed to consider whether the state of Vermont can be sued by one of its own former staff attorneys, acting as relator, for allegedly exaggerating the proportion of its employees’ time that was allocable to federally reimburseable environmental programs. Apparently responding to the Fifth Circuit decision, the Court ordered the lawyers in the Vermont case to brief the issue of whether the relator provisions are unconstitutional. Even if the Court does not go that far, it might rule that the application of the law to states as defendants violates the Constitution. Justice Stephen Breyer called it “one thing” to allow individuals to sue private federal contractors and “quite another” to “set an army of people loose on the states.” Update: The Court later upheld the constitutionality of the act’s relator provisions, but ruled that state governments cannot be named as defendants (Francis J. Serbaroli, “Supreme Court Clarifies, Broadens Antifraud Laws”, New York Law Journal, July 27, reprinted at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft site) See also April 30, 2001, July 30, 2001.
SOURCES: Peter Aronson, “Whistleblower Breaks New Ground”, National Law Journal, Oct. 27; Susan Borreson, “5th Circuit Slams Qui Tam Suit”, Texas Lawyer, Nov. 22; Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens, Supreme Court case 98-1828; Kenneth Jost, “Qui Tam Comes To the High Court”, The Recorder/CalLaw, Nov. 30; Charles Tiefer, “Don’t Quit on Qui Tam”, Law News Network, Nov. 29. MORE BACKGROUND: Fried, Frank; Steven G. Bradbury, “The Unconstitutionality of Qui Tam Suits”, Federalist Society Federalism and Separation of Powers Working Group Newsletter, v. 1, no. 1; Mark Koehn and Donald J. Kochan, “Stand Down”, Legal Times, Dec. 6, 1999, reprinted at Federalist Society site; Dan L. Burk, “False Claims Act Can Hamper Science With ‘Bounty Hunter’ Suits”, The Scientist, Sept. 4, 1995; Ridgway W. Hall Jr. and Mark Koehn, “Countering False Claims Act Litigation Based on Environmental Noncompliance”, National Legal Center for the Public Interest, Sept. 1999 (PDF format). Pro-qui tam sites, many of which double as client intake sites for law firms, include those of Taxpayers Against Fraud; Phillips & Cohen; Ashcraft & Gerel; Miller, Alfano & Raspanti; QuiTamOnline.com; and Chamberlain & Kaufman.
January 18 — Columnist-fest. Pointed opinions on issues that aren’t going away:
* Major League Baseball, meet Soviet psychiatry? Charles Krauthammer on the John Rocker case, and why it’s dangerous to view racism and general unpleasantness of opinion as suitable candidates for mental-health treatment (“Screwball psychologizing”, Washington Post, Jan. 14)
* John Leo on how courts and legislatures often seize on ambiguous enabling language as a blank check for vast social engineering: vague provisions in state constitutions get turned into an excuse to equalize school funding or strike down tort reform, domestic violence gets federalized on the grounds that it affects interstate commerce, and more. (“By dubious means”, U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 24).
* Clarence Page asks why states fight so hard to keep convicts in prison even after newly emergent DNA evidence clears them of the original rap. Do prosecutors and wardens care more about maintaining high inmate body counts, or about doing justice? (“When Innocence Isn’t Good Enough”, Chicago Tribune, Jan. 3).
January 17 — New York court nixes market-share liability for paint. In a setback for lawyers hoping to make lead paint their next mass-tort breakthrough, a New York appeals court has rejected the plaintiffs’ request that “market-share liability” be applied to the industry. This theory allows claimants to dispense with the need to show whose products they were exposed to, in favor of simply collecting from all defendants who sold the item, in proportions based on their market share. In explaining why such methods of assigning liability would be unjust, the court observed that paint makers did not have exclusive control over risks arising from their products, that makers sold at different times and to different markets, and that the composition of paint differed substantially from one maker to the next. (Jim O’Hara, “Court Sinks Lead Poisoning Case”, Syracuse Online, Jan. 10).
January 17 — Montreal Gazette “Lawsuit of the year”. “Two bagpipers sued Swissair for lost income from tourists at Peggy’s Cove because of the plane crash that killed 229 people in September of 1998. They claim their income declined dramatically while the lighthouse area was closed to the public.” (“Technology”, Dec. 31; Richard Dooley, “Swissair responds to bagpipers’ lawsuit”, Halifax Daily News, June 22, 1999).
January 17 — Dot-coms as perfect defendants. They’re flush with venture-capitalist and IPO cash, they’re run by hormone-crazed kids who bring a party atmosphere to the office, and they haven’t developed big human resources bureaucracies to make sure nothing inappropriate goes on. Why, they’re the perfect sexual harassment defendants! New York contingency-fee attorney David Jaroslawicz, a veteran of securities class actions and now “an aspiring scourge of the Internet“, hopes to spearhead a resulting “Silicon Alley sex-suit wave”. He has filed three suits on behalf of disgruntled female employees, including two against free-access provider Juno.com, one of which has been dismissed, and a third against Internet-TV producer Pseudo.com.
Asked why he happened to ask for the same amount, $10 million, in both lawsuits against Juno, Jaroslawicz says the damage request “is ‘arbitrary, whatever the secretary types in’ — just as long as it has enough zeros”. You ‘put in some high absurd number, because you can always take less,’ Mr. Jaroslawicz explained.” (Renee Kaplan, “The Sexual Harassment Suit Comes to Silicon Alley”, New York Observer, Jan. 17).
January 17 — New improvement to the Overlawyered.com site: better search capability. This weekend we installed the PicoSearch internal search engine, which you’ll find to be a big leap forward from our previous search system: fast results displayed in context, fuzzy logic to catch near-misses, no ads, search boxes available on key pages, and so forth. In addition, the database indexed now includes our editor’s home page (with a wide selection of articles, mostly on legal themes). Give it a test run, either by visiting our search page or just by typing your search into the box in the left column and hitting “return”.
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)
November 30 — Class-action fee control: it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. A panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that judges have a positive duty to scrutinize and, where appropriate, reduce attorneys’ fees in class actions, independently of whether anyone with appropriate standing raises an objection. The case arose after a Los Angeles federal district judge approved nearly $3 million in legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm of Weiss & Yourman in a shareholder class action against Occidental Petroleum, which had cut its dividend in alleged breach of an earlier promise not to do that. The case was settled by Occidental’s agreement to maintain more lucrative dividend payouts in the future and pay legal fees to the plaintiff’s firm; no cash recovery was had by shareholders.
Noted class-action objector Lawrence Schonbrun then appeared on behalf of a class member to challenge the fee payout as excessive; his arguments proved sufficiently persuasive that the judge eventually cut Weiss & Yourman’s fee by more than half, to $1.15 million. The law firm appealed, arguing that because its fee was the result of a separate side-deal with Occidental, rather than being deducted from a payout to the class, an individual class member (such as Schonbrun’s client) had no standing to object. This line of argument has been routinely offered in defense of “separately negotiated fee” class-action settlements, and it has a remarkable implication, namely that once the two sides’ lawyers have cut their deal behind closed doors, no one in the client class has any right to raise an objection to the fees obtained for representing them. Fees for representing a class, yet with no worry that anyone in the class will be able to bring a challenge to those fees — why, it’s like magic!
A little too magical for the Ninth Circuit: a “client whose attorney accepts payment, without his consent, from the defendants he is suing, may have a remedy,” wrote Judge Andrew Kleinfeld last month on behalf of a unanimous panel that also included Judge Alex Kozinski and Oregon district judge Owen Panner, sitting by designation. “The absence of individual clients controlling the litigation for their own benefit creates opportunities for collusive arrangements in which defendants can pay the attorneys for the plaintiff classes enough money to induce them to settle the class action for too little benefit to the class”. That’s where “the supervisory power of the district court” should come in, as “a mechanism for assuring loyal performance of the attorneys’ fiduciary duty to the class.” (Paul Elias, “$2 Million Fee Reduction Stands in Securities Case”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 20 — full story).
November 30 — Leave that mildew alone. It’s illegal to market “mildew-proof” paint for bathrooms and damp basements unless you go through the (extremely expensive) process of registering the paint as a pesticide, claims the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is seeking $82,500 in penalties from William Zinsser & Co., Inc., a Somerset, N.J.-based paint manufacturer. (EPA Region 2 press release, Nov. 10).
November 30 — Update: sued columnist still disrespecting local attorneys. As reported earlier in this space, Swansea, Ill. lawyers Judy Cates and Steven Katz have filed a lawsuit demanding $1 million from St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan after a column in which he criticized their handling of a class-action suit against Publisher’s Clearing House and jocularly compared them to the James Gang of bank robbers (see Nov. 4 commentary). You’d think McClellan would have learned his lesson by now, especially with the case still pending, but no, he’s had the temerity to write another column criticizing the same lawyers, this time pointing out that numerous state attorneys general have intervened to fault their proposed settlement of the magazine-subscription suit. (“Regardless of suit result, my lawyers will have work”, Nov. 21 — full column)
November 29 — New subpage: Our overlawyered schools. Compiling news clips and commentaries on the legal headaches that beset teachers, students, principals, faculty and university administrators. Highlights include our ever-popular Annals of Zero Tolerance, special ed and the ADA, Title IX (From Outer Space), the role of litigiousness in undermining supervised recreation, the paralytic contribution of tenure laws, and other trends that tend toward the merger of schoolhouse, courthouse and madhouse.
November 29 — “Some lawyers try to make nice”. “Soon after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the personal-injury lawyers at R. Jack Clapp and Associates marshaled their resources and mobilized their forces. Faster than you can say class-action lawsuit, the Washington, D.C., firm, which specializes in aviation disasters, launched EgyptAir990.com — a Web site that at first blush appears primarily concerned with helping the bereaved deal with loss, but on closer examination is all about financial gain.” New York Times writer David Wallis devotes a “Week in Review” roundup to the legal profession’s efforts to repair its “sorry” image, lately impaired “by tacky late-night commercials for ambulance chasers; the legal lobby’s opposition to tort reform; and the one-two punch of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
The Ohio Bar, meanwhile, has sponsored a TV spot in which two children explain at school what their parent does for a living: one says his father “protects people”, like a police officer, and another says her mom “helps sick and hurt people”, like a doctor. It turns out that they’re . . . lawyers. So what is it that the opposing side’s lawyers do for a living? (David Wallis, “Some Lawyers Try To Make Nice”, New York Times, Nov. 28 — full story)(free, but registration required).
November 29 — “Wretched excesses of liability lawsuits”. Op-ed by the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s David Boldt looks at “the ever-expanding litigation explosion” by way of some recent automotive cases, including the class action against DaimlerChrysler that recently resulted in a countersuit by the company (see November 12 commentary). On this summer’s Chevy Malibu verdict in Los Angeles, in which a jury voted $4.8 billion against General Motors, later reduced by a judge to $1.1 billion, Boldt offers a point of comparison we hadn’t previously seen: “The impact [of the Chevy’s 70 mph rear-ending by a drunk driver] was the equivalent of dropping the car from the top of a 16-story building.”
Many accept the idea that the litigation boom offers compensating benefits — for example, “that our lives are made safer by the system because it makes companies more careful. Interestingly, there is no known evidence for this.” Boldt cites the Brookings Institution’s study “The Liability Maze” of eight years ago. “The editors — Peter Huber of the Manhattan Institute and Robert Litan of Brookings — wrote that none of the authors had found a demonstrable improvement in safety for Americans compared with nations that have less stringent liability-law systems. Nor did the authors find that the increase in liability suits had accelerated a decline in U.S. accident rates. I can find no subsequent study that has contradicted these conclusions.” (David Boldt, “We all end up paying for a litigious society”, reprinted in Baltimore Sun, Nov. 24).
November 26-28 — Oh, well, better luck next time. Illinois courts reviewing capital sentences “have repeatedly expressed dismay at the representation received by Death Row inmates at trial,” and this Chicago Tribune investigation brings to light a sad array of ways lawyers can drop the ball at a time when clients need their help most: missing deadlines, failing to develop exculpatory evidence, alienating judges, neglecting to disclose conflicts of interest, and much more. “Since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977 . . . 33 defendants sentenced to death were represented at trial by an attorney who had been, or was later, disbarred or suspended — disciplinary sanctions reserved for conduct so incompetent, unethical or even criminal that the state believes an attorney’s license should be taken away.” If lawyers can perform this sloppily even when a client’s life is at stake, what must they be getting away with in lesser cases? (Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills, “Inept Defenses Cloud Verdicts”, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 15).
November 26-28 — Beware of market crashes. “Online brokerages are ‘probably’ financially responsible for computer outages that leave their customers unable to trade,” Securities and Exchange Commission Arthur Levitt said this week. Executives at online trading firms, reports the New York Post‘s Jesse Angelo, “are terrified of lawsuits from customers claiming they lost money due to computer glitches. E*Trade has already been slapped with such a suit by an Ohio woman who attributes $40,000 in losses to computer problems at the online trading site. The suit seeks class-action status”. (Jesse Angelo, “Levitt: Web Brokers May Be on the Hook for Computer Crash”, New York Post, Nov. 23).
November 26-28 — Update: cannon shot OK. Administrators at Nevis High School in Minnesota have relented and agreed to permit a yearbook photo of Army enlistee Samantha Jones perched on a cannon draped with a U.S. flag, despite a policy of “zero tolerance” of depictions of weapons (see Oct. 30-31 commentary). “More than 100 students walked out of class Nov. 3 to protest the ban on the photo, leading to 50 suspensions,” AP reports. (“Fight over yearbook photo ends”, AP/Washington Post, Nov. 25 (link now dead)).
November 26-28 — Weekend reading: evergreens. Pixels to take to the mall or to peruse while resting off the big meal:
* Out-of-state defendants sued for more than $75,000 in a state court should be able to choose removal of the suit to a U.S. district court with its greater objectivity between local and nonlocal litigants, argues Phelps Dunbar partner Michael Wallace in one of the more promising proposals for liability reform we’ve heard in a while (Michael Wallace, “A Modest Proposal for Tort Reform“, from vol. 1, issue 3 of Federalist Society Litigation Working Group newsletter; at Federalist Society website).
* How to tell you’ve been the victim of a staged car accident: tips from a local CBS-TV affiliate’s story on “Los Angeles’ most unlucky driver” (you’re driving alone in a newer car, someone in one vehicle distracts your attention, a second older car with several passengers gets in front of you and suddenly slams brakes, none of the alleged victims carry photo IDs) and from investigator Jack Murray’s book on the subject (the incident occurred midblock, not in rush hour and with no eyewitnesses, struck vehicle “has had tire pressure in the rear tires lowered (causes more taillight damage and stops more quickly)”. (“Special Assignment: Staged Accidents“, Channel2000.com, March 28, 1998; Jack Murray, “Red flags: a 14 point checklist“, not dated, National Association of Investigative Specialists website).
* “Procedures And Rules Regarding Suits Against Public Entities” — well, okay, it’s a dry title for an undeniably dry outline of the steps involved in extracting money from City Hall, but you’ve got to admit it bears an interesting byline: Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., whose success in litigating personal-injury cases both preceded and followed his better-known role in assisting O.J. Simpson to walk free of murder charges (website of California law firm Kiesel, Boucher and Larson LLP — full paper, undated).
November 24-25 — Don’t redeem that coupon! Under the heading, “Free money for doing nothing”, financial commentator Andrew Tobias writes, “If you’ve ever owned a Toshiba laptop — I’ve owned two — apparently you’re in line for $200-$400 because Toshiba has to pay us $2 billion because . . . well, because . . . I’m actually not going to claim my prize, because it doesn’t feel right. But, as noted over on overlawyered.com, it makes an interesting story.” (AndrewTobias.com, Nov. 24). Our coverage of the Toshiba laptop settlement ran Nov. 3, Nov. 5, Nov. 17 and Nov. 23.
November 24-25 — From our mail sack: memoir of a morsel. We’ve generally refrained from publishing on this site the many letters people send us describing their horrible personal experiences in court. Just this once, we’re going to break that rule and run this one from Paul Boyce of Tustin, Calif.:
“I am a small businessman, owner of a 3-employee business helping companies with their carpool programs (one of those employees is my wife). We were sued by an employee for wrongful termination 5 years ago, at a time when we had six employees. She had been working for me for only 6 months when I let her go. We went into binding arbitration, supposedly a low cost alternative to a jury trial. I lost. With penalties and interest, the judgment came to over $240,000. In 1998, I filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy — there was no way I could pay that much! In fact, business revenues were down to 1/5 of what they were when she sued me. Last year I earned $60,000. My lawyer’s fees came to $55,000.
“In the bankruptcy, the only asset we had was our small-business retirement plan savings, amounting to about $350,000. What was astonishing was that the judge said that because my wife and I are in our mid 40s, we didn’t need the $350,000 — we could easily make it up! He based this on tables showing how long we could be expected to live versus how much we could be expected to make at hypothetical government jobs. So he ordered our retirement plan be handed over to the contingency fee lawyers to be split up. We’ve asked around and the best we can tell, the employee who sued us 5 years ago will get maybe $35,000 for her efforts. We counted a total of 4 contingency fee lawyers on her side.
“The result of all this is that I’ve decided to close the office and lay off my only employee. It’s just a lot easier and less risky to run the business out of our home.
“The legal system, with its strong preference for feeding the lawyers at the expense of morsels like me, shows me how far astray from the constitution our great country has strayed. It’s a parody of what the founding fathers had in mind when they clearly expressed their historic vision. Today, it’s all about the lawyers and how clever they are at shifting even more wealth their way.”
Paul and Sandy Boyce can be reached at Commuter Services Group, Tustin, CA.
November 24-25 — CNN “Moneyline”. Watch for our editor as a likely guest on this evening’s (Wed., Nov. 24) CNN Moneyline, discussing the continuing lawsuit boom.
November 23 — Class actions vs. high tech. “It had to happen: America’s most successful industry, high technology, is under sustained assault from America’s second-most successful industry, litigation.” The editor of this website has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, tackling the Microsoft and Toshiba class actions. (Walter Olson, “A Microsoft Suit with a Sure Winner”, New York Times, Nov. 23).
November 23 — Soros as bully. Add another prominent name to the list of philanthropists (see September 2 commentary) bankrolling the lawsuits that are fast driving family-owned gunmakers into bankruptcy: wealthy financier George Soros, who according to a Wall Street Journal report last month has donated $300,000 to keep the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek litigation going and also provided financing for the NAACP’s suit against gunmakers. (Paul M. Barrett, “Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21)
November 23 — Update: too obnoxious to practice law. The Nebraska Supreme Court has now heard the case of Paul Converse, who wants to become a lawyer though the state bar commission says he’s behaved in an “abusive, disruptive, hostile, intemperate, intimidating, irresponsible, threatening or turbulent” manner in the past (see Oct. 13 commentary). Last week the court agreed that Converse “seeks to resolve disputes not in a peaceful manner, but by personally attacking those who oppose him in any way and then resorting to arenas outside the field of law to publicly humiliate and intimidate those opponents.” Notwithstanding these high qualifications to practice in certain fields of American law, it turned down his application. They sure do things differently out in Cornhusker land (Leslie Reed, “Court: Law Grad Unfit for Nebraska Bar”, Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 20, link now dead)
November 23 — Get off my jury. “To win a decent verdict, Mr. Rogers [Chicago attorney Larry R. Rogers, Sr., who won $10.4 million for a client after a serious traffic accident] had to select the right jury…He never wants people from the banking industry, accountants and people in investment professions on his juries: ‘These people tend to think about the power of money, that if you give someone $100,000 and they invest it, it will earn something. They won’t give you full compensation for the injury.’ He was also sensitive to keeping off jurors who are anti-lawsuit: ‘I ask them is there anything they’ve heard in the media, in newspapers, about tort reform.’ …’They liked [his client], and juries tend to award damages to people they like.” (“Proving worth isn’t age-related” (profile of Larry R. Rogers Sr.), National Law Journal, Oct. 4.)
November 22 — From the planet Litigation. Courtroom jousting continues between a group that calls itself Citizens Against UFO Secrecy and the U.S. Department of Defense over CAUS’s charges that DoD has covered up incidents of possible intrusion by extraterrestrial spacecraft. CAUS has sued the government a half-dozen times over its alleged unresponsiveness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding UFO sightings; on September 1 it added a complaint that the government has fallen short of its responsibilities under Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution to defend the nation’s territory against foreign invasion. CAUS executive director Peter Gersten filed the action in his home state of Arizona, which “is definitely a targeted area for the clandestine intruders,” and is contemplating follow-on suits in New York and California. “I can prove in a court of law, and beyond a reasonable doubt, that we are in contact with another form of intelligence,” he says. CAUS’s site reprints affidavits, motions and other documents from the case, including illustrations of UFO sightings in Corpus Christi, Tex., Pahrump, Nev. (link now dead), and Seattle. (Robert Scott Martin, “CAUS Sues U.S. Over Secrecy”, Space.com, Sept. 1, link now dead; CAUS Sept. 1 press release.)
In a separate action, UFO researcher Larry Bryant of Alexandria, Va., who’s served as CAUS’s Washington, D.C. coordinator, has prepared a petition charging Virginia authorities with shirking their constitutional obligation to safeguard citizens from invasion by foreign powers. Bryant says Virginia governor James Gilmore III “knows that it’s against the law to abduct, torture, falsely imprison, wantonly impregnate and unconsensually surgically alter (via implants) a person. He also knows that he has the power to repel these invasive activities of apparently alien-originated UFO encounters.” Described by Space.com as a retired writer and editor of military publications, Bryant “takes pride in having ‘filed more UFO-related lawsuits in federal court than has anyone else in the entire universe.'” (Robert Scott Martin, “UFO Invasion Outcry Spreads to Virginia”, Space.com, Sept. 10, link now dead.)
CAUS’s Gersten has also described as “gratuitously demeaning”, probably “defamatory” and “actionable” an ad for Winston cigarettes this summer which made fun of alien-abduction believers, but declined to pursue legal action against the cigarettes’ maker, R.J. Reynolds. (“Cigarette Ad Sparks UFO Controversy”, Space.com, Sept. 28; “UFO Lawyer Unlikely To Sue Tobacco Company over Ad”, Oct. 1, links now dead).
November 22 —Vice President gets an earful. “One employee summed up the anguish over the case, saying, ‘when I read what the government says about Microsoft, I don’t recognize the company I work for.’ Another bitterly complained that the many subpoenas of Microsoft e-mail had invaded employees’ privacy more than any government wiretap, ‘so that sharp lawyers can cut and snip bits of e-mail to construct whatever story they want’ in court. ‘We bugged ourselves’.” John R. Wilke, “Gore, Addressing Microsoft Staff, Defends Nation’s Antitrust Laws”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16).
The New York Times is reporting that class-action lawyers on the West Coast will sue Microsoft as early as today on behalf of a class of California end-users of Windows 95 and 98. The suit, which will ask treble damages for alleged overcharges, will be filed on behalf of a statewide rather than nationwide class because the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1977 Illinois Brick decision disallows federal antitrust actions on behalf of indirect purchasers of goods (most Windows users buy it preloaded on their machines, rather than direct from Microsoft). However, 18 states including California and New York have enacted statewide laws allowing such suits. (Steve Lohr, “Microsoft Faces a Class Action on ‘Monopoly'”, New York Times, Nov. 22 — free, but registration required).
November 22 — Great moments in zoning law. Officials in Millstone, N.J. have issued a summons to Lorraine Zdeb, a professional pet-sitter who took in nearly 100 animals from neighbors, clients and strangers to save them from the flooding of Tropical Storm Floyd, charging her with operating a temporary animal shelter in a residential neighborhood. (“Somerset County woman charged for taking in animals during storm”, AP/CNN, Nov. 20, link now dead).
November 22 — Repetitive motion injury Hall of Fame. Delicacy prevents us from describing exactly how this Fort Lauderdale, Fla. woman acquired carpal tunnel syndrome in the course of providing paid telephone companionship for lonely gentlemen, but it did not prevent her from applying for workers’ compensation benefits for which she obtained a “minimal settlement” this month. (Reuters/ABC News, Nov. 19, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Annals of zero tolerance: the fateful thumb. MeShelle Locke’s problems at North Thurston High School near Tacoma, Washington began Nov. 5 when she pointed her finger and thumb at a classmate in the shape of a gun and said “bang”. Asked if that was a threat, she saucily quoted a line from the 1992 movie “The Buttercream Gang”: “No, it’s a promise.” Before long, she was hauled up on charges of having threatened violence, drawing a four-day suspension and a disciplinary record that may affect her chances of getting into a competitive college.
A budding writer whose work appeared in the high-selling anthology Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul, and who says she’d never been in trouble with the school before, MeShelle might seem an unlikely source of menace, but school officials told her father that his daughter “fit the profile” of a potentially dangerous student: “For example, she often eats lunch alone or in a small group.” (Karen Hucks, “Gunlike gesture results in suspension”, Tacoma News-Tribune, Nov. 13; “School is no place for ‘bang-bang’ jokes”, Nov. 16, links now dead)
November 20-21 — From the evergreen file: L.A. probate horror. Wealthy art collector Fred Weisman was lucky he didn’t live to see the proceedings in a Santa Monica courthouse after his death “as his will and his estate are picked apart like a slab of pork thrown to buzzards.” (Jill Stewart, “Shredded Fred”, New Times L.A., Nov. 19, 1998, link now dead).
November 20-21 — No, honey, nothing special happened today. In early 1997 Denise Rossi startled her husband by announcing that she wanted a divorce. In the ensuing legal proceedings she forgot to mention — it just slipped her mind! — that eleven days before filing she’d happened to win the California lottery for $1.3 million. Two years later, her husband learned the truth when a misdirected Dear-Lottery-Winner letter arrived offering to turn his ex-wife’s winnings into ready cash. And this Monday a judge ruled that she’d have to hand it all over to her ex-husband, as a penalty for committing a fraud on him and on the court. She has since filed for bankruptcy proteciton. (Ann O’Neill, L.A. Times, reprinted in San Jose Mercury News, link now dead).
November 20-21 — Judge to lawyers in Miami gun suit: you’re trying to ban ’em, right? “If you were to get exactly what you wanted, they’d be taken off the market entirely,” Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean told lawyers representing Dade County in its recoupment lawsuit against major gunmakers, by way of clarifying their position. (Jane Sutton, “Miami Gun Suit Could Take Firearms Off Market”, Reuters (link now dead), Nov. 16). Last month attorney John Coale, a spokesman for the municipal suits, “dismissed claims that the lawsuits could ever shut down the entire handgun industry. ‘It can’t be done, and it’s not a motive, because as long as lawful citizens want to buy handguns, and as long as the market’s there, there’s going to be someone filling it,’ Coale said.” (Hans H. Chen, “Colt’s Handgun Plan Heats Up Debate”, APBNews.com, Oct. 11) (see Oct. 12 commentary).
Dade County-Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, quoted in the new Reuters report, seemed to view the anti-democratic nature of the county’s lawsuit almost as a point in its favor: he “said he was using the courts in an attempt to crack down on the gun industry because the Florida legislature refused to do so. ‘Every year that I’ve gone to the legislature we have basically been told to take our case elsewhere,’ he said.” Much the same sentiment was expressed last month by Elisa Barnes, the chief lawyer behind the Hamilton v. Accu-Tek lawsuit in Brooklyn, N.Y. against gunmakers: “‘You don’t need a legislative majority to file a lawsuit,’ says Ms. Barnes.”” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21 (requires online subscription))
November 20-21 — National Anxiety Center “Favorite Web Sites of the Week”. “I recommend a visit to www.overlawyered.com where you can get tons of data regarding how trial lawyers are destroying this nation out of nothing more than greed, greed, and greed. This excellent site will help you understand what’s happening to Microsoft, to the tobacco industry, the gun manufacturers, and much more.” — “Warning Signs”, the weekly commentary of Alan Caruba’s National Anxiety Center, for Nov. 19. Unabashedly conservative, Mr. Caruba’s popular site specializes in refuting environmental scares in outspoken style.
November 20-21 — 100,000 pages served on Overlawyered.com. We’d have hit this milestone earlier but our counter went on the fritz for a few days…thanks for your support!
November 18-19 — Worse than Y2K? “If the EPA succeeds in forcing a shutdown of the 17 coal-fired power generating plants it claims are illegally polluting,” editorializes the Indianapolis Star regarding the Clinton Administration’s recently filed lawsuit, “chances are very good the Midwest will experience major brownouts and rolling power outages on the next hot summer day.” Moreover, the “lawsuits were filed without warning [Nov. 3] by the Justice Department on behalf of the EPA. It was, quite simply, an unprecedented sneak attack on the electrical power industry” — yet one to which private environmental groups may have been tipped off in advance, given how ready they were to fire off a flurry of supportive press releases. EPA administrator Carol Browner and Janet Reno’s Justice Department now contend that utilities disguised expansions and upgrades of the grandfathered plants as routine maintenance, but a Chicago Tribune editorial says the modernizations were carried out with “the knowledge of federal environmental inspectors” whose superiors are now seeking to change the game’s rules after many innings have been played. If a looming Y2K glitch threatened to shut down a large share of the electric capacity of the Midwest and South, there’d be widespread alarm; when aggressive lawyering threatens to do so, few seem to care. (“EPA sneak attack”, editorial, Indianapolis Star, Nov. 5, link now dead; “A costly U-turn by the federal EPA”, editorial, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 13).
November 18-19 — Golf ball class action. Golf Digest is “disgusted” over a class-action suit that lawyers filed against the Acushnet Company because, after running out of a promotional glove sent free to customers of Pinnacle golf balls, it sent the remaining customers a free sleeve of golf balls instead. Fraud! Deception! Shock-horror! “In the end, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were awarded as much as $100,000 in fees for their heroic efforts, [Allen] Riebman and [Lawrence] Bober (as the two named plaintiffs) themselves received payments of $2,500 apiece, and everyone else received what the lawsuit claimed was unacceptable in the first place: another free sleeve of Pinnacles. That’s justice at work.” (“The Bunker”, Golf Digest, October 1 — link now dead)
November 18-19 — Skittish Colt. According to Colt Manufacturing, the historic American gunmaker battered by the trial lawyers’ onslaught, Newsweek got some things wrong in its report last month, which was summarized in this space Oct. 12 (see also Nov. 9 commentary). Colt denies that its dropping of various handgun lines constitutes an exit from the consumer market, and says “it will continue its most popular models, such as the single-action revolver called the Cowboy and the O Model .45-caliber automatics.” It gave a number for layoffs of 120-200 rather than 300, and suggested that the lines would have been dropped at some point even without the litigation pressure. (Robin Stansbury, “Arms Reduction at Colt’s”, Hartford Courant, Oct. 13, reprinted at Colt site). A statement by the company did not, however, dispute a quote attributed to an executive in the original reports: “It’s extremely painful when you have to withdraw from a business for irrational reasons.”
According to Paul M. Barrett in the Oct. 21 Wall Street Journal, Colt’s legal bills for defending the suits “are expected to reach a total of about $3 million in 1999 alone. Insurance will cover two-thirds of that, says [New Colt Holdings chairman Donald] Zilkha, but the remaining $1 million is a significant hit for a still-struggling company that expects to have net income of only about $2 million this year.” (“Evolution of a Cause: Why the Gun Debate Has Finally Taken Off”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21). Update: for a closer look at Colt, see Matt Bai, “Unmaking a Gunmaker”, Newsweek, April 17, 2000.
November 18-19 — Law-firm bill padding? Say it isn’t so! Law professor Lisa Lerman of Catholic University in D.C. thinks lots and lots of overbilling goes on, even at big-name firms. “There’s a complete disconnect between the occurrence of misconduct and the rate of discipline,” she says. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Overbilling Is a Big-Firm Problem Too”, National Law Journal, Oct. 4). One of Lerman’s case histories, if accurate, indicates systematic malfeasance in the methods by which an unnamed Eastern law firm generated time sheets to submit to its insurance-company clients. (Michael D. Goldhaber, “Welcome to Moral Wasteland LLC”, National Law Journal, Oct. 11).
November 18-19 — A lovable liability risk. Zoe, a golden retriever who for the past two years has accompanied Principal Jill Spanheimer at her office at West Broad Elementary School, and has made friends with practically all the kids over that time, has been banished by an administrative order of the Columbus, Ohio public schools. The school system’s letter to Ms. Spanheimer “cited ‘possible allergic reactions,’ ‘liability issues’ and ‘an uncomfortableness of some students and staff’ as reasons Zoe was expelled.” See if your heart doesn’t melt at the picture (Julie R. Bailey, “Principal’s dog expelled from elementary school”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 11). On Tuesday the board agreed to review the policy (Bill Bush, “Policy on animals in schools becomes pet project for board”, Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 17).
November 18-19 — Aetna chairman disrespects Scruggs. No love lost, clearly, between Richard Huber, chairman of Aetna, and Mississippi tobacco-fee tycoon Richard Scruggs, prominent in the much-hyped legal assault on managed care. Scroll down about halfway through this interview to find the bracketed “Editor’s Note” where the interviewer asks the chairman of the nation’s largest health insurer whether it was “by intention or mistake” that he’d consistently misreferred to Mr. Scruggs’ surname as “Slugs”. Knock it off, kids (MCO Executives Online, Oct. 27 — full interview).
November 18-19 — Welcome WTIC News Talk visitors (“Ray and Robin’s picks“). We’ve even got a few Hartford-related items for you: see the Colt and Aetna bits above, and this report summarizing an article from the Courant about how lawsuits are making it hard for towns around Connecticut to run playgrounds.
November 17 — “How I Hit The Class Action Jackpot”. “As the lucky co-owner of a Toshiba laptop computer, I should be tickled pink: I apparently qualify for a cash rebate of $309.90….And the beauty of it is that my Toshiba works just fine!….[S]o remote is the possibility that our laptop will ever seriously malfunction that I may not get around to downloading the free software ‘patch’ that Toshiba has provided as part of the settlement.” Don’t miss this scathing Stuart Taylor column on the mounting scandal of the $147.5-million (legal fees) laptop settlement. (National Journal, Nov. 15 — link now dead).
November 17 — Who needs communication? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission steps up its campaign of complaint-filing over employer rules requiring employees to use English on the job. Synchro-Start Products Inc. of suburban Chicago has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle one such agency complaint; native speakers of Polish and Spanish make up much of its 200-strong workforce, and the company said it adopted such a policy after the use of languages not understood by co-workers had led to miscommunication and morale problems. The EEOC, however, pursues what the National Law Journal terms a “presumed-guilty” approach toward employer rules of this sort, permitting narrowly drafted exceptions only when managers can muster “compelling business necessity”, as on health or safety grounds. Earlier this year, a California nursing home agreed to pay $52,500 in another such case. In some early cases, employers adopted English-only policies after fielding complaints from customers who felt they were being bantered about in their presence or that non-English-speaking customers were getting preferential service — a problem which, like that of co-worker morale, may not necessarily rise in Washington’s view to the level of “business necessity”. (“EEOC Settles ‘English Only’ Workplace Suit For $55,000”, DowJones.com newswire, Nov. 12; Darryl Van Duch, “English-Only Rules Land In Court”, National Law Journal, Oct. 26.)
November 17 — Microsoft roundup. A critic of the giant company explains, not without glee, why the findings of fact mean so much as a template for private lawsuits: “Before last Friday, telling a jury that Microsoft is an evil, predatory organization that drove you out of business was a long, protracted procedure of walking a jury, step by step, through a crash course of how a technology company works; the importance of core technologies and leveraging them into a larger space, the nature of operating systems and related licensing and agreements, how Microsoft was able to exploit its position in the marketplace; and why this means that the plaintiff’s company was hoodwinked and not simply outmaneuvered. Today, you just have to call the jury’s attention to the document which your, their, and Bill Gates’ tax dollars helped to prepare.” (Andy Ihnatko, “The Wicked Witch Is Seeking Positive Spin”, MacCentral Online, Nov. 9).
Also: why bungling by IBM (especially) and Apple helped clear the way for Redmond’s dominance (Jerry Pournelle, “Jerry’s take on the Microsoft decision: Wrong!”, Byte, Nov. 8). And a Gallup Poll shows the public viewing Bill Gates favorably by more than three to one, siding with Microsoft on the trial by a 12-point margin, and opposing breakup of the company by a solid majority — as if any of that will matter to the folks in Washington (Ted Bridis, “Despite court loss, Microsoft moving ahead in public opinion”, AP/SFGate Tech, Nov. 10).
November 16 — What a mess! New Overlawyered.com subpage on environmental law. Our latest topical page assembles commentaries and links on the slowest and most expensive method yet invented to clean up fouled industrial sites, pay due respect to irreplaceable natural wonders, and bring science to bear on distinguishing serious from trivial toxic risks — namely, turning everything over to lawyers at $325 an hour. Also included are commentaries on animal rights, including our ever-popular drunken-parrot, crushed-insect, rattlesnake-habitat and eagle-feather reports — though at some point the menagerie of legally protected critters will probably get its own page.
November 16 — Baleful blurbs. Under well-established First Amendment precedent, it’s still nearly impossible to prevail in lawsuits against book publishers alleging that their wares are false and misleading — that, e.g., the diet book didn’t really make the pounds melt away, the relationship book resulted in heartbreak rather than nuptials, the religion book led the reader into spiritual error, and the celebrity autobiography bore only a passing relationship to strict historical truth. Were it otherwise, whole categories of book might never appear on bookstore shelves in the first place for fear of liability, including not a few works of public policy interest, such as, for example, the writings of certain early enviro-alarmists who predicted famine and exhaustion of world nonrenewable resources by 1985.
However, a recent decision in a California court may represent a breakthrough for plaintiff’s lawyers who’ve long hoped to expand publisher liability for printed untruths. The “Beardstown Ladies” were a mid-1990s publishing phenomenon in the well-worn genre of commonsense investment advice: a group of grandmothers in a small Midwestern town whose investment club was widely reported to have achieved stellar annual returns. Eventually a reporter for Chicago magazine investigated and found the Ladies had inadvertently inflated their returns, which turned out to be not especially stellar. Disney, their publisher, sent correction slips to booksellers, and the Beardstown craze was soon but a memory. The San Francisco law firm of Bayer, August & Belote, however, went to court on behalf of a customer to say that Disney had behaved falsely and deceptively by not yanking the book or at least its cover, which repeated the discredited claims.
Last month, reversing a lower court’s ruling, the state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled that although First Amendment law concededly protected the contents of the book, its cover blurbs were entitled to no such protection — even though the blurbs were in fact quoted verbatim from the book’s text. “Because the state has a legitimate interest in regulating false commercial speech, we conclude that the statements, as alleged, are not entitled to First Amendment protection,” wrote Justice Herbert “Wes” Walker. The Association of American Publishers had filed an amicus brief warning that such a ruling would “impose an affirmative obligation on publishers to investigate independently and guarantee the accuracy of the contents of the books if those contents are repeated on book covers and promotional materials.” (Rinat Fried, “Panel: You Can Judge Book by Cover”, The Recorder/Cal Law, Oct. 29). (DISCUSS)
November 16 — ‘Bama bucks. Per financial disclosure reports, six plaintiff’s law firms “donated about $4 million last year to six candidates through the state Democratic Party and political action committees”, according to the pro-tort reform Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy. Tops was the firm of Jere Beasley of Montgomery, which gave “more than $1 million — $633,000 to the Democratic Party and $389,000 to two political action committees, Pro-Pac and Trial-Pac”. Other distributors of largesse included Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown of Mobile ($955,000), Hare, Wynn, Newell & Newton of Birmingham ($636,000); Pittman, Hooks, Dutton & Hollis of Birmingham ($526,000); Morris, Haynes, Ingram & Hornsby of Alexander City ($476,000); and King, Warren & Ivey of Jasper ($250,000). The money went to four judicial candidates, of whom two won, and to losing candidates for attorney general and lieutenant goveror. (Stan Bailey, “Group: 6 law firms gave $4 million to Demos’ run”, Birmingham News, Nov. 10) (earlier coverage of Alabama tort politics: Aug. 26, Sept. 1).